“It’s like déjà vu all over again,” baseball great Yogi Berra once said. It is one of my favorite “Yogi-isms,” and it is the one that came to mind when I ran across a copy of the August 1908 issue of The Engineering Magazine. According to the front cover, the publication was “Specially Devoted to the Interests of Engineers, Superintendents & Managers.” The titles of two of the articles immediately jumped out at me because they appeared to still be topical: “Efficiency as a Basis for Operation and Wages” and “Alcohol as a Fuel for Internal-Combustion Engines.”
The article on efficiency was the second in a four-part series. In Part 1, the author reviewed typical inefficiencies and their significance. In Part 2, he addressed the “tendencies and influence” of national efficiency, citing the qualities that “caused the (manufacturing) greatness” of the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, and Japan, considered the industrial leaders of that era. The author promised parts 3 and 4 would address the strengths and weaknesses of the modern organization and examine the “averages attained in standard practice.” Part 2 was focused primarily on two forms of inefficiency—inefficiency associated with processes and materials and the inherent inefficiencies of people—and it touched on a subject near and dear to me: energy efficiency. On that topic, the author discussed the Btu yields of several popular fuels, which, with it being 1908, were various grades of coal. He also wrote of the difficulty in properly selecting power producers, using the example of choosing between a driftwood-burning furnace and a diesel crude-oil motor to propel a tugboat. He also noted boiler efficiency could range from 50 percent to 85 percent (under exceptional test conditions), but 90 percent never would be realized.
The alcohol article is even more interesting because of the continued relevance of the three primary questions asked by the author:
- “What will alcohol be made from?”
- “What will the price be?”
- “Can it be used for automobiles?”
The answer to the last question is obvious, as we’ve all seen the labels on gasoline pumps advising us of ethanol content. According to “2012 Ethanol Industry Outlook," published by the Renewable Fuels Association, in 2011, with nearly 14 billion gal. of production, ethanol represented 10 percent of America’s fuel supply and 25 percent of all of the motor fuel produced from domestic resources. Most cars on U.S. roads today can run on blends of up to 10 percent ethanol, and many vehicles use flex-fuels such as E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
There are television ads extolling biofuels, particularly ethanol, which in the United States most commonly is produced from corn, potatoes, sugarcane, or cassava. As for the price, in 1908, the Payne Act had recently made imported industrial alcohol duty-free, and the going price was around 40 cents per gallon in 5-gal. quantities. Some of that was attributed to the higher-than-usual price of corn, the feedstock for nearly all alcohol furnished to the U.S. market then, which was fluctuating at around 60 cents per bushel. Although Henry Ford’s Model T, first produced in 1908, was capable of running on alcohol, the lower price of gasoline made it the preferred fuel.
In February 2016, the rack price of ethanol was $1.46 per gallon, while the cost of regular (unleaded 87 octane) gasoline was $1.02 per gallon, a difference of 44 cents per gallon. That was 3 cents per gallon higher than the January 2016 rack price of ethanol, when the comparable price of corn was $3.66 per bushel. Surprisingly, the ratio of corn price to ethanol price is much higher today than it was for imported ethanol in 1908. It’s amazing how much has changed—and how much is the same—116 years later!