In Praise of Corn Ethanol
“The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.” – Ben Okri
Etymology teaches us much about history. Take the word plumbing, which is derived from the Latin word plumbum, which means “lead.” In Roman times, elaborate systems of lead pipes were used to deliver water from the viaducts into the dwellings and bath houses of the cities. A plumber came to mean a person dealing in and working with lead, which eventually evolved to the modern understanding we ascribe to the word today. Plumbum is also why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb.
Lead is cheap, relatively abundant, easily worked, and corrosion resistant. It has been used in myriad applications throughout history. Nonetheless, lead has one significant drawback – it is extremely toxic to humans. Prolonged exposure to high levels of lead can lead to anemia, cardiovascular issues, stomach pains, severe mental disorders, and death. Because lead interferes with reproduction and brain development, it is especially toxic to fetuses, babies, and young children, where even low levels of exposure can lead to reduced IQs, stunted growth, and behavioral issues.
The toxicity of lead has been known for ages and was particularly well understood by the early part of the 20th century, which makes the conspiracy we are about to describe especially insidious. As laid bare in an explosive and extremely well researched series of articles published by The Nation more than 20 years ago, General Motors (GM), DuPont, and Standard Oil of New Jersey (the predecessor to today’s Exxon Mobil) knowingly engaged in commercially lucrative but legally and morally outrageous behavior that resulted in one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of modern times. The details of what transpired should shock even the most ardent supporters of unfettered free market capitalism into understanding why prudent environmental regulations are in the public’s interest.
In the early part of the 1920s, the race was on to discover and profit from the dominant technologies that would underpin the already-booming automotive industry. Although internal combustion engines (ICEs) powered by gasoline had many advantages over the competition – an excellent mix of speed, power, and range – there did exist one critical flaw. Because the gasoline on the market at that time was of relatively poor quality, ICEs tended to “knock.” Knocking occurs when gasoline burns unevenly inside an engine’s cylinders, resulting in unpleasant noises, reduced range, and accelerated engine degradation. The solution was to upgrade the octane rating of gasoline – a standard measure of a fuel's ability to withstand compression in an ICE without detonating – and a frantic search occurred for a suitable chemical additive that could solve the problem.
In truth, a perfectly viable solution already existed, but none of the three corporations at the heart of this story were much interested in it. It was widely understood, even back then, that blending modest concentrations of ethanol with gasoline not only solved knocking, but it also produced an outstanding motor fuel by the technical measures that mattered. GM and DuPont – which effectively owned a controlling interest in GM during the relevant period – were opposed to the use of ethanol in gasoline because they couldn’t profit from it. Meanwhile, the big oil companies vehemently opposed ethanol because they viewed it as a dangerously competitive alternative to gasoline altogether. Strangling the burgeoning ethanol industry while it was still in its cradle was a top strategic priority for all parties.
Enter tetraethyl lead.
The discovery that highly poisonous tetraethyl lead (TEL) was an extraordinarily effective anti-knocking agent was made in late 1921 by Thomas Midgley Jr., working in the research laboratory of Charles Kettering. Over the next seven decades, GM, DuPont, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and various related corporate entities that sprung from this development like Ethyl Gasoline Corporation engaged in an orgy of lies, deceit, corruption, and coverup. To their everlasting shame, they brazenly paid for knowingly bad science, exaggerated the uniqueness of their invention, bent the powers of the US government to help them secure first a domestic and eventually a global domination of the gasoline additive market, downplayed the dozens of employee deaths that resulted from exposure to TEL, ignored direct evidence of the toxic legacy they were creating, litigated against and worked to stall all opposition to their malfeasance, and literally saturated the Earth with lead oxide particles spewed from virtually every tailpipe on the road. Their collective behavior was unabashedly grotesque, and the resulting harm entirely avoidable.
With air and water pollution reaching an unacceptable apex in the US, President Richard Nixon oversaw passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was given a broad mandate and substantial enforcement authority. Among the EPA’s first targets was TEL, but it took another 25 years before its use in US passenger vehicle gasoline was finally and fully eradicated. The introduction and proliferation of catalytic converters to meet other pollution goals set by the EPA was a considerable driver of the phase out of TEL, since lead acts as a severe poison to the catalysts used in such devices.
In the intervening period, the industry searched for lead-free anti-knock additives but once again took a pass on ethanol, settling instead for methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). This time, ethanol was ruled out because vehicle engines weren’t yet designed to be compatible with it. Although solving these compatibility issues was a relatively simple task involving modest changes to alloys used and the substitution of certain gaskets and seals, MTBE was an effective and affordable drop-in solution that could be produced at the necessary scale. And thus, drivers were introduced to the concept of “unleaded” gasoline, largely unaware of the fraudulent claims and profit motive that put the harmful substance in their cars in the first place.
Unfortunately, MTBE itself had a fatal flaw – it is a dangerously toxic water pollutant. It spreads underground faster than other components of gasoline and is highly soluble in water. After several high-profile leaks from underground gasoline storage tanks, the molecule was banned for use as an anti-knock agent in the US and several other developed countries.
And so, finally, nearly 85 years after the regrettable discovery and widespread adoption of TEL as an anti-knocking agent, it was back to square one. Congress solved the problem by enacting the Renewable Fuels Standard in 2005 and expanded it in 2007, which mandated the use of ethanol derived from corn as an additive in gasoline. Today, nearly all gasoline in the US contains ethanol, with the three dominant blends being E10, E15, and E85 (the numbers represent the percentage of ethanol in the blend). All new ICE cars can use E10 and E15 without modification, although only certain flex-fuel vehicles can accommodate E85.
A modern corn ethanol facility is a thing of engineering beauty, efficiently transforming corn kernels into ethanol suitable for use in fuels as well as a byproduct called distiller's dried grains and solubles (DDGS), which serves as a high-quality animal feed. Additionally, the carbon dioxide generated during fermentation is captured and used for carbonating beverages and in the manufacturing of dry ice. The price per gallon of ethanol is quite competitive with gasoline, even correcting for its lower energy content and assigning zero value to its role as an anti-knock agent. In the wholesale market, ethanol is currently trading hands for $2.19 a gallon, a modest premium to wholesale gasoline on a BTU-equivalency basis.
We are fully aware of the critiques of corn ethanol as a fuel, and we’ll (hopefully) save our readers the effort of typing them up in the comments by listing them here. Using food for fuel is ethically dubious. Ethanol plants are limited in scale because the feedstock is of low density and widely dispersed, constraining the radius of economic feasibility when sizing new facilities. The corn belt has disproportionate power over the US Senate, and corn ethanol would never have been adopted absent this peculiarity of US domestic politics. There are alternative anti-knock solutions like requiring oil refineries to produce higher octane gasoline directly.
Yes, these are all valid critiques, worthy of thoughtful debate. But they also serve what we believe is a deeper and more nefarious propaganda objective. A standard trick of the public relations trade when confronting a terrible narrative like the ugly legacy of leaded gasoline is to divert attention to other problems, no matter the problem. By creating and stoking a debate about corn ethanol as a fuel, your attention is diverted away from its primary role as an anti-knocking additive. The goal is to get you to forget about the ugly history of TEL. The fact that you are likely learning about much of this for the first time by reading the peckings of a green chicken on Substack is proof of the efficacy of this magic trick.
The Wikipedia page for “Ethanol fuel in the United States” is comprehensive, containing more than 12,000 and words and 176 footnotes. The word “fuel” shows up 268 times. Absent from the page? The words “MBTE,” “lead,” and “knock.” The same could be said for countless news articles, speeches and campaigns on the subject.
Omissions that speak volumes.
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