Biofuels Through the Centuries

The images and text on these panels provide snapshots of how humans have been employing the energy from plants for their benefit for over three centuries.

From the application of oils for illumination and appliances to the technological advances in transportation biofuel, bioenergy has experienced an up-and-down evolution. Today’s research, focused on the conversion of non-food plant sugars into fermentation products like ethanol for a renewable fuel industry, is working on bioenergy’s next great promise.

Top the bottom: London, early 1700s; Whale oil barreled for shipping in 1800s; The Otto engine, 1876


Biofuels were humankind’s first liquid fuels

  • Vegetable oils and fats lit up streets in Europe and America
  • Alcohol-burning stoves warmed homes



Biofuels and oils become cost-competitive

  • Whale oil: $1.30-$2.50 a gallon, 18 million gallons a year
  • Camphene & Alcohol: 50 cents a gallon; 150 million gallons a year
  • Kerosene: 60 cents a gallon, 200 million gallons a year


First spark of an idea of the automobile engine

  • First spark-ignition piston engine using alcohol invented by Samuel Morey / 1826
  • Nikolaus Otto develops Otto-cycle engine to run on ethanol / 1860


Top to bottom, left to right: Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1901; Teddy Roosevelt, 1906; Henry Ford, 1925; Early Internal Combustion Engine; Henry Ford Model T Centennial


Germany creates world’s first large-scale biofuels industry

  • Kaiser Wilhelm encourages use of alcohol fuel from potatoes over oil use
  • 72,000 distilleries produce 27 million gallons / 1906
  • Ethanol-fueled lamps, water heaters and other home appliances in use


America moves toward biofuels with repeal of alcohol tax

  • Distilled spirits tax of 1862 repealed by Teddy Roosevelt / 1906
  • Alcohol production slows; Prohibition movement grows / 1912-1932
  • World War I oil shortage fear moves Henry Ford to create tractors and Model T’s designed to burn alcohol as well as gasoline


The rise of the internal combustion engine

  • Rudolph Diesel finds that peanut, castor and palm oils can compete with “heavy” fuel from petroleum / 1912
  • Henry Ford envisions enough alcohol yield from crops such as potatoes to drive farm machinery for 100 years / 1925
  • Leaded (anti-knock) gasoline introduced; safety questioned, and plant workers die of lead poisoning


“The fuel of the future…is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust – almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented.” –Henry Ford, 1925

“It is highly desirable that an element of competition should be introduced by…putting alcohol used in the arts and manufactures upon the (tax) free list.” –Teddy Roosevelt, 1906


Top to bottom: Brazil Sugar Mill; 1933 Nebraska E10 Ethanol Fueling Station; Oil Field in the Middle East

Meanwhile, outside the United States…

  • Brazil, Philippines use sugarcane processing to make alcohol biofuels to counter high cost of gasoline imports
  • First biofuel plant built in Brazil (1927). By 1937, ethanol is 7% of Brazil’s fuel consumption
  • 30 industrial nations had tax incentives or mandatory ethanol blending programs by 1932 (tropical countries, Europe)


Depression, war bring attention to farm crops

  • Ford-backed “Agrol” ethanol developed in Kansas for blending with gasoline. But by 1939, ethanol firms—fought by oil industry—went bankrupt / 1930s
  • Ethanol plants reopened for war effort, to make fuels, chemicals and rubber / 1940s


The arrival of cheap abundant oil from the middle east

  • Over 25 years after World War II, global oil consumption grows by 5½ times, much of it cheap oil from the Mideast
  • 12 nations form OPEC to control oil prices and payments to producing countries / 1969


Top to bottom: Gas Staion, 1970s; Early Kansas Ethanol Plant; Policy Incentive Drive Ethanol Production

An international gasoline crisis

  • After attack on Israel, Arab nations impose oil embargo, lasting 6 months. Price of oil quadrupled, consumer gas lines grew / 1973
  • Strike in Iran reduces world oil exports by 5%; more gas lines / 1978
  • World scrambles for oil alternatives; Brazil mandates and subsidizes ethanol blending, U.S. looks to corn-based ethanol


The (first) golden age of ethanol

  • President Jimmy Carter offers tax incentives for ethanol production, excludes Latin American exports to U.S. / 1980
  • 163 ethanol plants in the U.S. produce more than 595 million gallons, to mix with gasoline as octane booster / 1984


Biofuels ride roller-coaster of unstable markets

  • Price of oil drops in late ‘80s to $12 a barrel; ethanol industry nears bankruptcy
  • Lead and air toxics barred from gasoline (Clean Air Act); corn-based ethanol blend is popular alternative /1990

Top to bottom: Midwest Energy Crops; BP Biofuels Facility, Jennings, LA


Crop-based fuels return amid uncertainty

  • Renewable Fuel Standard sets biofuel production goals (2005 and 2007); “unreachable,” skeptics claim  
  • United Nations agency calls for 5-year moratorium on food-based biofuels, fearing loss of valuable farmland (2007); food vs. fuel debate begins
  • Rising price of oil, plus rise in atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel use, brings more interest to renewable plant-based fuels
  • U.S. Ethanol production reaches 10.9 billion gallons / 2009


Biofuels: Where we are today

  • Total world biofuels production, 2012: 19.5 billion gallons (13.3 billion in U.S.)
  • Renewable Fuel Standard 2 in U.S. mandates annual 18 billion gallons of biofuel by 2014, 36 billion by 2022
  • 40 nations have policies or mandates urging alternative fuel development
  • First commercial cellulosic ethanol plants open in 2013


Looking Ahead

Biofuels: The challenges that remain

  • Food, water, land and ecological impacts continue to be centers of debate about plant-based fuels
  • Conversion technologies for cellulosic biofuels from non-food plants are not yet optimized for broad production
  • Investment in future biofuels markets is slowed by lack of proven processing systems


Confronting the Challenges

What is at stake?

  • National energy security
  • Future climate stability, environmental protection
  • Rural economic growth
  • Renewable, sustainable fuel supply


What is the EBI doing?

  • Combining resources and expertise from
  • many disciplines to address issues in a holistic, systematic way
  • Using biology and chemistry tools and techniques to unlock nature’s code
  • Finding pathways—technical, social and legal—that lead to safe, efficient, low-cost production of renewable fuels


Addressing the Problems on all Fronts

It begins with the plants

  • Fast-growing, hardy, rich in biomass, perennial
  • Harvest, storage and transport
  • Pest-resistant and non-invasive


Next, taking the plant apart

  • Disrupting the plant cell wall
  • Breaking up cellulose, releasing sugars


Then, processing into transportation fuel

  • Fermentation on a large scale
  • Finding yeasts, bacteria, and chemical catalysts to optimize conversion
  • Producing biofuel molecules to replace petroleum


Assessing biofuel’s  global potential & impacts

  • On the land, water and ecosystems
  • On a nation’s economy and international markets
  • On health, lifestyle and sustainability


In this era of unprecedented climate change, stemming in large part from the growing proliferation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, disruptive change is required to meet the earth’s future energy demands in a more responsible way. Biofuels are only one answer, but a critical one. Reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels will reverse a negative environmental trend and strengthen national energy security and independence. The future of the planet is what drives the commitment of the EBI and its members to seek sustainable, economically viable, environmentally responsible options for the next generations’ energy needs. – Chris Somerville, Director of Energy Biosciences Institute


This biofuels chronology, and the description of programs at the Energy Biosciences Institute, are adapted from a wall panel display in the administrative hallway at the EBI’s Berkeley home, the Energy Biosciences Building. Much of the history content was drawn from “Environmental History/Biofuels” by Dr. Bill Kovarik, Professor of Communications at Radford University and, in late 2014, faculty member at Unity College in Maine. Dr. Kovarik’s Environmental History Timeline can be found at



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