The invention of alternative fuels

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Alternative fuels are today’s buzzwords. The world has decided that the fossil fuel called crude oil is finite. We are going to run out of it very soon. There will be (are) shortages and this will bring queues at the pumps and the price will go up, as does any commodity when it gets into short supply. Like rice for example. Three years ago we saw price of crude per barrel go over $100, literally doubling. What about next year? We must find an alternative, and soon.

The impetus propelling us towards alternative fuels is then price. As cost of gasoline goes up we look to see what else we can use. Gasohol is one of these, but it is not a new form of fuel. Quite the contrary. Gasohol first became of interest in 1979, with much discussions regarding its production and use in 1980. In 1985, its use was put forward in Thailand, so gasohol is about 30 years old. Wrong! I date gasohol back to 1960.

Those of you who can, think back 50 years to the days of hardship before computers, ball point pens and cling-wrap. Gasoline was in plentiful supply; in fact in 1960, we expected the fossil fuels to last forever. Gasoline was also very cheap, so why would anyone look to inventing the gasoline/alcohol mixture, which would become known as ‘gasohol’? Surprise, surprise, the impetus was still cost, despite the cheapness and availability of gasoline. There were those who could not afford gasoline. I was one.

In 1960, I was the proverbial starving medical student. I had an 11 year old car (an Austin A40) and lived in a cheap flat. My car represented two years of celibacy as women cost money (they did then as they still do now) and the car was more important, having taken two years of scrimping and saving, and no women. There was only one problem, I did not have enough money left over after cornflakes to put petrol in it for the week. That reference to cornflakes is correct. It used to say on the side of the packet that one serving was the equivalent of one third of one’s daily dietary requirements. You did not need to be Einstein (or have an electronic calculator, at that time not invented) to see that three plates would get me through the day, no problem! Food was taken care of, but what about petrol?

The university provided the answer, though not knowingly at the time. I was forced to attend biochemistry classes once a week, and it was in the biochem laboratory that I saw these huge carboys filled with crude petroleum and crude alcohol (don’t ask me why they are called ‘carboys’ but apparently have been known as that since 1753, so never say you can’t learn anything on these pages).

In my impecunious state, I suddenly saw salvation. It was one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments, that would later change the entire history of the world. If I could get my car to run on a mixture of crude petroleum and crude alcohol, I had a free source of ‘petrol’ every Thursday.

The plan was hatched. Every Thursday I would park the A40 as close to the front door of the biochemistry lab as I could, and would remember my white lab coat. The pockets were large enough to carry one 500 ml flask in each, and it was a simple trip down the stairs to empty the flasks into the waiting Austin. For those of mathematical bent, that was 1 liter a trip, and I could manage many trips in a three hour practical class.

Now those with a modicum of biochemical knowledge will know there is a problem with water being released when you mix those two. In fact, according to a text book I consulted just now, “There is provided a process for making anhydrous alcohol denatured with gasoline for ready mixing with additional gasoline to make ‘gasohol’ and in which aqueous alcohol is introduced into a dehydration drying column along with gasoline.” Somehow, I knew this, but I did not have access to dehydration drying columns, but I did have access to 100 percent ether, which I knew could absorb the water. The final mixture that was laboriously dispensed and poured into my fuel tank had a 50:50 mixture of petroleum and alcohol with one liter of ether in every five liters of mixture. Thursday afternoons were very busy, filling 500 ml flasks, trotting down the stairs and keeping a record of how many flasks of each I had appropriated. My car ran, it could go one complete week on the biochem lab mixture, and I had, without knowing it at the time, invented ‘Gasohol 50’.