8.2 History of Ethanol Use

As a product of the decomposition of sugars, ethanol is a naturally-occurring chemical. When fruit or any other plant material containing sugars decomposes in the right conditions, the chemical process called fermentation takes place, and ethanol is formed. Ancient humans knew about its existence, and also about its intoxicating effects. As early as 9,000 years ago, ancient peoples were already fermenting rice, honey, and grapes to make drinks with ethanol in them.[22]

Glass of Wine

Glass of Wine

Ancient Greeks and Arabs knew about ethanol as well. Just as we now use the Arab-invented mathematics of “al-gebra,” we refer to ethanol by its Arabic name: alcohol. Many drinks ancient people first created, such as beer from fermented grains and wine from fermented grapes, are still produced using largely the same techniques today.

While fermentation and distillation has been used to make alcohol through the biological actions of yeast, the famous scientist Michael Faraday was the first person to create ethanol chemically, accidentally making it while studying reactions of coal gas and sulfuric acid in 1825.[23]

Ethanol was used as a lamp oil as early as the 1840s until it was replaced by oil. Henry Ford called it the fuel of the future and produced cars that ran on it, but Prohibition soon made all ethanol –whether in alcoholic beverages or as fuel for cars– illegal. Oil and gasoline replaced ethanol again. [24] Now, as we look for alternative sources of fuel, ethanol is making a comeback. Most industrial ethanol now comes from the fermentation of corn, and 20% of the corn grown in the U.S. is now made into ethanol. Henry Ford’s fuel of the future now makes up 10% of all gasoline sold in the U.S. and there may soon be many cars running on 100% ethanol on our roads.


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