In a brick shed behind his house on Bagley Avenue in Detroit, Henry Ford built his first car.
The 32-year-old Ford produced only one Quadricycle Runabout in 1896, and he built it by hand from four bicycle wheels, steel, wood, rubber, cloth and glass. He fabricated a two-cylinder engine using a design described in the Jan. 9, 1896, edition of American Machinist magazine.
It also ran on ethanol, not gasoline.
The observant motorist may notice that cars now run on gasoline. The savvy driver surely also notes that gasoline commonly contains ethanol.
Look at any gas pump. Unleaded, mid-grade, premium – they all have ethanol added in and have for some time. More and more gas stations, however, are starting to offer another choice: pure, unadulterated gasoline.
There are 11 gas stations in Spokane that sell clear gas, which is pure gasoline with no ethanol added, according to pure-gas.org. Another seven in Spokane Valley offer the fuel. Some of those 18 stations began selling clear gas as early as 2017, but seven of them put the option on the pump just this year.
Without going too much into the science behind it all, ethanol helps reduce tailpipe emissions when it’s mixed with gasoline. Ethanol, an alcohol made from corn, brings more oxygen into the chemical equation, allowing the fuel to burn more completely and produce cleaner emissions.
The ethanol addition is required by the 1990 Clean Air Act and the renewable fuel standard described in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. These federal laws give states discretion on how this requirement is met. In Washington, the renewable fuel standard requires that at least 2% of the total volume of gasoline sold in the state must be ethanol.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that nearly 143 billion barrels of gasoline were consumed in the U.S. in 2018. That equates to about 390 million gallons a day, on average. Those many, many gallons of gas contained about 14 billion gallons of ethanol – 10% of the total volume.
But while the gas-ethanol mixture may burn cleaner, ethanol has only about 70% the energy content of gasoline, so it powers fewer miles per gallon. In other words, ethanol begets cleaner air, but pure gasoline begets more miles. With pure gasoline, the more bang-for-your-buck requires more bucks, since pure gas is more expensive than ethanol blends.
So why choose clear gas?
Some motorists may want it in their old cars, and by old we mean pre-1990. Older engines can combust ethanol, but it hastens their wear and tear. Other motorists believe their vehicles need the purity that airplanes require.
But let’s be frank. The vast majority of cars don’t need pure gasoline. Considering that vehicle emissions are the largest contributor to greenhouse gases in Washington state, the region’s many motorists should do as much as they can to lessen their share of air pollution.
Harmful tailpipe emissions go back a long way. In 1921, a General Motors engineer named Thomas Midgley Jr. found a new way to reduce the “knocking” in auto engines: the highly toxic additive called tetraethyl lead.
As James Lincoln Kitman wrote in The Nation in 2000, engine knocking was a sign of an inefficient motor. Such feckless engines by nature created more emissions and, more important for GM’s bottom line, customers didn’t want a loud, obnoxious car. The engineer Midgley tried everything “from melted butter and camphor to ethyl acetate and aluminum chloride.” Ethanol, it turns out, worked great to solve the problem.
But GM didn’t like ethanol. It couldn’t be patented, and the corporate giant couldn’t control its production. What’s more, Kitman wrote, “the oil companies hated it, a powerful disincentive for the fledgling GM, which was loath to jeopardize relations with these mighty power brokers.”
In February 1923, filling stations began selling so-called leaded gasoline. Midgley wasn’t there. He was “in bed with severe lead poisoning,” according to a Smithsonian article on leaded gas.
The poisoning was no surprise to Midgley. Lead’s toxicity had been known since 1854. It also shouldn’t have been a shock that men working in GM’s tetraethyl lead factory “showed stunning signs of mental deterioration, from memory loss to a stumbling loss of coordination to sudden twitchy bursts of rage,” according to a 2013 article in Wired magazine. By October 1924, 32 of the 49 factory workers were hospitalized. Five died.
Decades passed and engines burned lead with dire consequences. In 1986, the federal government outlawed the use of lead as a gas additive, and the mean blood lead level in the American population dropped more than 75% in 15 years. But the damage had already been done.
A study done in 1985 by the Environmental Protection Agency found that as many as 5,000 people in the U.S. died every year from lead-related heart disease prior to the federal prohibition on leaded gas. A 1988 congressional report done by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry showed that 2 million children had blood lead levels reduced every year, to below toxic levels, between 1970 and 1987 as the use of leaded gasoline was phased out.
Kitman, in The Nation, said that “one can conservatively estimate that a total of about 68 million young children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from 1927 to 1987.”
Considering all the toxicity and air pollution, it’s tempting to think about how different things could’ve been.
Ford didn’t use leaded gasoline in his glorified bicycle and home-built engine. Though he ended up making all his vehicles run on petroleum-based fuel, he almost didn’t use gasoline. In 1925, Ford praised vegetable-derived fuels like ethanol.
“The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything,” Ford told the New York Times. “There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”
Spokane bike summit
The annual bike summit by Cascade Bicycle Club and Washington Bikes is being held in Spokane next year, and the organizers are seeking proposals for presentations and workshops.
The 2020 summit, which also focuses on walking, active transportation and disability rights, will be held on April 26 and 27 at the Spokane Convention Center. The theme is “Shift: From Ideas to Action.”
The summit’s planners want “innovative, thought provoking, action-oriented content related to biking, walking, active transportation, disability rights and transportation justice from Washington state and beyond.”
For more information about the summit, visit cascade.org. Questions about presentation and workshop proposals should be directed to Tamar Shuhendler at firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline to submit proposals is Sunday.
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