An excerpt from an upcoming book by Kevin Clemens on alternative fuels and vehicle technology.
In January of 1907, three identical Maxwell automobiles traveled a distance of 249 miles between New York and Boston to evaluate the effectiveness of gasoline, kerosene, and ethyl alcohol (ethanol) as motor fuels. Despite severe conditions and heavy snows, the total distance traveled during the three-day test was sufficient "to allow accurate comparisons between the three fuels," according to the comparison committee that sanctioned the test. The results, certified by official observers who accompanied the three Maxwell cars, gave an average of 10.1 mpg for gasoline, 7.4 mpg for kerosene, and 8.1 mpg for the alcohol fuel. The price of the alcohol fuel was its primary drawback, costing four times as much per gallon as gasoline, but The New York Times, in its Feb. 12, 1907 edition, was optimistic about ethanol: "... It is believed that within a short time the price will be materially reduced so that it may be a successful financial competitor with gasoline. At present, the price is the only drawback. In all other respects alcohol more than verified the expectations as a fuel possessing excellent motive power.
Any moonshiner can tell you the recipe for ethanol. Mix sugar and water and yeast and let it ferment for a day or two. The yeast will break down with the glucose sugar molecules (C6H12O6) to form ethanol and carbon dioxide (CO2). Don't have any sugar? Don't worry. You can use almost any starchy food, like potatoes, wheat, or corn, which use heat to break down the starches into sugars with the help of naturally occurring enzymes and then use yeast to make alcohol. Ethanol is actually toxic to yeast, so about the strongest a batch of "mash" can get is 15 percent alcohol. That's where a still comes in.
Separating the alcohol from the water using a still is a simple process called distillation. Ethanol boils at 75.4 degrees C, significantly lower than water's boiling point. If you heat the mash that contains 15 percent alcohol above ethanol's boiling point but below water's boiling point, the ethanol will vaporize. All you have to do is collect the vapor with a tube and condense it back into a liquid by cooling it and you have 190 proof (about 95 percent pure mixed with 5 percent water) alcohol. Moonshine. Serve it in a mason jar if you are a traditionalist.
Aside from its virtues as an intoxicant, the energy contained in ethanol has real value as a fuel. The V-2 rocket used by the Germans during World War II was powered by burning liquid ethanol mixed with liquid oxygen. This same fuel was used in the Redstone rocket that launched America's first satellite into space. Long before that, ethanol was recognized as a potential fuel to power the automobile
World War I resulted in a shortage of oil and U.S. ethanol production jumped to 50-60 million gallons per year. After the war, ethyl alcohol as a fuel continued to fascinate motorists and researchers. The University of Michigan's Professor of Chemistry, Eugene H. Leslie, wrote a book in 1923 titled Motor Fuels: Their Production and Technology. He noted: "The value of ethyl alcohol as a motor fuel when used in a mixture with gasoline ... has been amply demonstrated." Leslie surveyed a variety of sources, including molasses, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and artichokes, but found that, "If any other grains are to be used for alcohol manufacture in this country corn will be the one." This was 1923. In a premonition of an argument used against corn ethanol today he noted, "The better grades of corn cannot be used for alcohol manufacture because of their greater value for feed and food."