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Like firewater

In 1925, researchers tested 70% alcohol in internal combustion engines

int/mct archivesFord driven by Heraldo de Souza Mattos in August, 1925: tests on Rio’s highwaysint/mct archives

A dusty, four-cylinder Ford with simple yellow stripes along its sides, with the  driver wearing helmet, safety goggles and a duster, is the oldest-known, alcohol-fueled car in Brazil. In August 1925, the Ford traveled for 230 kilometers in a car race around the Gávea circuit in Rio de Janeiro. This was the first race organized by the Automobile Club of Brazil. The Ford’s mileage was 20 liters per 100 km. In the same year, the Ford, fueled by 70% hydrated alcohol (with 30% water), traveled from Rio to São Paulo, Rio to Barra do Piraí, and Rio to Petrópolis. “It was like firewater,” says chemist Abraão Iachan, advisor to the director of INT, the National Technology Institute. Firewater contains some 38% to 54% of alcohol in its composition.

The earliest experiments with this car took place at the Experimental Fuel and Minerals Station – EFMS, a government research entity that turned into the INT in 1933. The motivation at the time was no different from today. Epitácio Pessoa (1919-1922), then President of Brazil, had already complained in 1922 of the “colossal imports of gasoline to Brazil;” he often mentioned the “use of alcohol instead” and predicted “the aid that this solution would provide to the sugar cane industry.” The subsequent Administration, of President Arthur Bernardes (1922-1926), requested that EFMS work on a project to develop alcohol-fueled engines that might also become the basis for legislation on the subject.

Ernesto Lopes da Fonseca Costa, a geographer and civil engineer who helped create the EFMS and was one of its directors, was very enthusiastic about this project, which was coordinated by engineer Heraldo de Souza Mattos, a researcher and test pilot for the Ford, which was on loan. “The aim of these experiments was to clarify the following issues, among others, that were still unclear at that time: the likely causes of the corrosion often found on the various engine parts of alcohol-fueled engines; the crucial conditions for the perfect carburation of alcohol carburetors; specific fuel consumption and factors that interfered in the engine’s technical performance,” wrote Fonseca Costa in his preface to the book Álcool motor e motores a explosão (Fuel alcohol and explosion engines) by Eduardo Sabino de Oliveira (published by the Instituto do Açúcar e do Álcool (Sugar and Alcohol Institute),in 1942).

CTA VW Beetle with alcohol-fueled engine, owned by former telephone services carrier Telesp: long-lasting and economically successful experiencesCTA

The EFMS priority was how to make the alcohol and imported gasoline mixture feasible without having to entirely substitute one kind of fuel with another. This mixture was mandatory in the thirties, due to several local, state and federal laws that determined that 5% to 10% of alcohol had to be added to the gasoline. In the twenties, Brazil produced 150 thousand liters of fuel from sugar cane in small liquor distilleries. In the following decades, the country invested in the production of anhydrous alcohol (with a small amount of water), which was more suitable for internal combustion engines.

Using alcohol as fuel had already been considered by a number of companies and governments since the early 20th century. In 1914, Henry Ford himself, who had pioneered the automobile industry in the USA, drove around in an alcohol-fueled Ford. What he predicted in the New York Times in 1925 became famous: he stated that alcohol would be the “fuel of the future.” In France, research studies had been conducted on the carburetted power of alcohol in internal combustion engines. Other countries, such as England, Germany, Holland and South Africa had conducted similar experiments, years before Brazil. It was only in the mid-seventies that government and scientific investment in Proálcool, the National Alcohol Program, led the country to become the main global reference in this respect, thanks to long-lasting and economically successful experiences.

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