HENRY FORD AND THE FUTURE HEMP CAR
Henry Ford: 1863 – 1947
“There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yeild of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for one hundred years.” – Henry Ford
Pioneering automotive engineer Henry Ford held many patents on automotive mechanisms, but is best remembered for helping devise the factory assembly approach to production that revolutionized the auto industry by greatly reducing the time required to assemble a car.
Born in Wayne County, Michigan, Ford showed an early interest in mechanics, constructing his first steam engine at the age of 15. In 1893 he built his first internal combustion engine, a small one-cylinder gasoline model, and in 1896 he built his first automobile.
In June 1903 Ford helped establish Ford Motor Company. He served as president of the company from 1906 to 1919 and from 1943 to 1945.
In addition to earning numerous patents on auto mechanisms, Ford served as a vice president of the Society of Automotive Engineers when it was founded in 1905 to standardize U.S. automotive parts. 1
Shamefully, Ford was an anti-Semitic and Nazi sympathizer. Comparable to Thomas Jefferson having slaves; it is paradoxical that Henry Ford (considered to be one of America’s greatest minds) should also be preoccupied with racism.
Fuel of the Future
When Henry Ford told a New York Times reporter that ethyl alcohol was “the fuel of the future” in 1925, he was expressing an opinion that was widely shared in the automotive industry. “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,” he said. “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.”
Ford recognized the utility of the hemp plant. He constructed a car of resin stiffened hemp fiber, and even ran the car on ethanol made from hemp. Ford knew that hemp could produce vast economic resources if widely cultivated.
Ford’s optimistic appraisal of cellulose and crop based ethyl alcohol fuel can be read in several ways. First, it can be seen as an oblique jab at a competitor. General Motors had come to considerable grief that summer of 1925 over another octane boosting fuel called tetra-ethyl lead, and government officials had been quietly in touch with Ford engineers about alternatives to leaded gasoline additives. Secondly, by 1925 the American farms that Ford loved were facing an economic crisis that would later intensify with the depression. Although the causes of the crisis were complex, one possible solution was seen in creating new markets for farm products. With Ford’s financial and political backing, the idea of opening up industrial markets for farmers would be translated into a broad movement for scientific research in agriculture that would be labelled “Farm Chemurgy.” 2
Why Henry’s plans were delayed for more than a half century:
Ethanol has been known as a fuel for many decades. Indeed, when Henry Ford designed the Model T, it was his expectation that ethanol, made from renewable biological materials, would be a major automobile fuel. However, gasoline emerged as the dominant transportation fuel in the early twentieth century because of the ease of operation of gasoline engines with the materials then available for engine construction, a growing supply of cheaper petroleum from oil field discoveries, and intense lobbying by petroleum companies for the federal government to maintain steep alcohol taxes. Many bills proposing a National energy program that made use of Americas vast agricultural resources (for fuel production) were killed by smear campaigns launched by vested petroleum interests. One noteworthy claim put forth by petrol companies was that the U.S. government’s plans “robbed taxpayers to make farmers rich”.
Gasoline had many disadvantages as an automotive resource. The “new” fuel had a lower octane rating than ethanol, was much more toxic (particularly when blended with tetra-ethyl lead and other compounds to enhance octane), generally more dangerous, and contained threatening air pollutants. Petroleum was more likely to explode and burn accidentally, gum would form on storage surfaces and carbon deposits would form in combustion chambers of engines. Pipelines were needed for distribution from “area found” to “area needed”. Petroleum was much more physically and chemically diverse than ethanol, necessitating complex refining procedures to ensure the manufacture of a consistent “gasoline” product.
However, despite these environmental flaws, fuels made from petroleum have dominated automobile transportation for the past three-quarters of a century. There are two key reasons: First, cost per kilometer of travel has been virtually the sole selection criteria. Second, the large investments made by the oil and auto industries in physical capital, human skills and technology make the entry of a new cost-competitive industry difficult.
Until very recently, environmental concerns have been largely ignored. All of that is finally changing as consumers demand fuels such as ethanol, which are much better for the environment and human health.3