“Baladeur’s” literary researches into the early history of alcohol fuels make more than interesting, and, alas, nostalgic reading to one whose motoring career began in the spacious days some five and forty years ago as a junior, but extremely enthusiastic, assistant to Charles Jarrott and S. F. Edge.
There is a temptation to remark that the apparent indifference to alcohol as a motor fuel in the three or four decades following M. Henriod’s efforts was possibly due to the fact that throughout that period we had a plenitude of palatable alcohols at potable prices and deemed it indecent and ungentlemanly to degrade them to the base uses of vulgar mechanisms! It is, however, more probable that the lack of interest had a sound economic basis since the high cost of alcohol and its extravagance compared with petrol, made it a non-commercial proposition — as it does today.
There were, and still are, many technical disadvantages, such as the need for ultra high compression ratios, if full power and economy are to be obtained, the difficulty, chiefly due to its affinity for water, in making stable blends with petrol and other fuels, the need for special carburetter settings and the high consumption referred to above.
Here be it noted that alcohol has a calorific value of only ten to twelve thousand B.T.U.s per pound compared with petrol’s eighteen to nineteen thousand and that as little as one-half per cent. of water in a petrol/alcohol mixture will cause complete separation with disastrous results to carburation and engine performance.
Lest anyone wonders why, in the light of these remarks, a considerable amount of a very good alcohol-blended fuel was sold here in pre-war days it should be said that this fuel contained a large proportion of benzole (benzene) which acted as a binder for the petrol/alcohol; additionally the alcohol received favourable treatment from the Excise people since it was free of the ninepence per gallon tax borne by petrol.
Under equal conditions alcohol blend fuels could not compete with petrol or benzole on price.
My earliest record of the use of alcohol by car engines is in an interesting, and now historical, book by Rhys Jenkins, “Motorcars and the Application of Mechanical Power to Road Vehicles,” published by Fisher Unwin in 1902, wherein we learn that for a year or two previously both French and German Governments had been, for economic reasons and in order to foster home agriculture, trying to force motor manufacturers to substitute alcohol for petrol.
French Governments ever since have tried to push alcohol as a fuel and in the years preceding the last war compelled the oil companies to purchase and to dispose of a considerable quantity. The oil people had to pay a very high price and even then often preferred to get rid of the alcohol at a loss rather than to degrade their normal fuels with it” — in fact one frequently saw petrol pumps showing the sign “pas de alcohol” in order to attract custom.
Much French alcohol was produced from the sugar beet which is cultivated extensively, particularly in the north. This is not the small red, edible beetroot “Baladeur” mentions but a large root about the size and texture of a mangel wurzel and it is unlikely that a French chef would approve of it as a table delicacy.
The Eire Government too has in recent years forced the oil concerns to buy large quantities of alcohol at about four shillings per gallon and blend it in with their motor fuel. In this case the alcohol is produced from potatoes and the object is to subsidise the Irish farmer.
Germany, it is thought, gave more attention to the production of a synthetic alcohol, known as methyl alcohol or methanol in contra-distinction to ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is distilled from sugar beet, grain, potatoes, or, as in the British case, molasses.
It is not known by what methods Germany produced synthetic alcohol during the last war, but an accepted procedure is to pass carbon monoxide and hydrogen over a catalyst at high temperature.
In the late 1930’s a proposition to extract large quantities from surplus maize grown in Africa was investigated, the idea being to persuade the fast growing trans-African airways to run their engines on the alcohol derived. In this case we found that the cost, the technical difficulties in the way of special engine design, and the inability of the aircraft to carry the almost doubled fuel load consequent on the high consumption, made the proposition impracticable. The use of alcohol certainly permits a greater power output from a given engine than does petrol, only however if the compression ratio is much increased and a very rich carburetter setting employed. Desirable as such power increases may be with racing engines they produce complications in the way of internal stresses and related factors which up to now have discouraged designers of aero and auto engines from catering for alcohol.
The foregoing perhaps does not explain fully why Continental motorists of the early 1900’s became antipathetic towards alcohol as a fuel, although some of their engines seemed to derive benefit therefrom. In those days, though, there was a total lack of scientific knowledge on the subject of motor fuels, the phenomenon of detonation or “knocking,” had not been studied (it was nearly always attributed to carbon deposit) and was just classed as pre-ignition, the significance of the compression ratio in relation to power output and thermal efficiency had not been realised and the volumetric efficiency of engines was unexplored, even if appreciated.
In other words the thermo-dynamics of the petrol engine were a complete mystery, engine design was based on empirical experiment rather than on scientific research and the engines produced by the various manufacturers were not designed on common principles as they are today.
Manufacturing methods were not precise and engines of identical make and type often had entirely different physical characteristics with widely differing performance in consequence.
It is likely that the only adjustments made by these early motorists when using alcohol consisted of enlarging the jets, or whatever performed their functions in those days, and of advancing ignition timing somewhat.
It is noted that the Gobron-Brillié engine required a heated inlet pipe when using alcohol, which is not surprising since extraordinarily long inlet pipes were fashionable in those days on account of the mistaken belief that a long pipe aided the vaporisation of the fuel. In actual fact such pipes tended to overcool the mixture, setting up deposition and uneven running; they also made starting up difficult and at low engine speeds often accumulated ice around the air ports and jets which, of course, upset the running. This was due to the latent-heat effect, i.e., the amount of heat required to bring about a change of state from liquid to vapour, heat which is extracted from the surrounding air and from the carburetter and pipes. Alcohol has about three times the latent heat value of petrol and so chills the induction system to a much greater degree which doubtless explains why the Gobron needed supplementary heat.
This cooling property of alcohol is of great benefit if proper use is made of it, since a much heavier charge can be drawn into the cylinders and the combustion chamber keeps cooler during the working stroke; thus it may well be that the ultra long-stroke engines “Baladeur” mentions favoured alcohol in some cases.
Charles Jarrott’s remarks on the unpleasantness of the exhaust gases are understandable despite M. Henriod’s perfectly true claim to the purity of the exhaust, for in any case the engines at the start of the race Jarrott mentions would be running at low speeds, on small throttle openings, while waiting for the flag to drop, conditions calling for an over-rich mixture, and since much richer mixture strengths are needed with alcohol Jarrott and his fellow competitors were inhaling much more of the incomplete combustion products, in the shape of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, than they had been accustomed to when the races were run on petrol.
M. Henriod’s observations were no doubt based on mixtures adjusted for perfect combustion rather than for maximum power.
The successful alcohol/benzine mixtures were in all probability alcohol/benzole blends and for “benzine,” which is petrol, “benzene” which is benzole should be substituted.
Though modern benzole blends excellently with alcohol the benzole of those early days was not produced as a motor fuel and it contained a very high proportion of sulphur as well as much tarry matter, ingredients fatal to the valves and piston rings of any engine. This sort of benzole was used for richening up coal gas supplied for domestic use.
It was not until about 1908 that the producers of benzole appreciated that it had to be freed of sulphur and especially treated before it become acceptable as a motor fuel.
Those pioneer motorists who used this crude old benzole with their alcohol may well have blamed the alcohol unfairly for their troubles.
The malachite green to which M. Henriod objected so strongly was no doubt green carbonate of copper sometimes called mountain green. Its chief use is said to be as a source of copper, though it also appears as ornamental stonework and is then called malachite.
Malachite green, on the other hand, is a green dye known as benzaldehyde green and it is euphoniously described as a triphenylmethane dye, being the zinc soluble chloride oxalate or ferric double chloride of tetramethyl-para-aminotriphenylcarbinol “; this no doubt would denature anything, even the most potent of alcohols, and if it was the one M. Henriod encountered I am sure that, after having to spell it, he disliked it as heartily as I do.
Modern practice has been to denature commercial alcohol with pyridene, a noxious substance closely associated with the objectionable nicotine befouling a favourite pipe.
Although I spent a deal of time in the company of Edge and Jarrett I do not remember them discussing alcohol (as a useful fuel) and I am sure that we did not use it with the Gordon Bennett and Grand Prix racing cars to which we ministered in those far-off days.
The modern conception of alcohol as a motor fuel developed about 1920 and then mainly in connection with racing. The principles adopted were the outcome of Ricardo’s comprehensive researches in the subject as exemplified in “The Report of the Empire Fuels Committee, published by the Institution of Petroleum Technologists,” circa 1924, a work providing the student with a mine of invaluable information and a sound basis on which to build further research.
Most of us remember Ricardo’s famous 1920-22 T.T. Vauxhall racing engines; these provide a comparatively modern example of an engine designed to take advantage of the properties of alcohol.
About the same time racing motorcyclists realised that their needs could be covered by alcohol, and it is obvious that the remarkable stamina of the modern motor-cycle engine is largely due to the design improvements required to make engines sturdy enough to handle the impressive b.m.e.p.’s obtainable.
There is no end to the variety of alcohol, petrol, benzole, water, tetra-ethyl-lead blends of fuel employed by racing men in the last twenty years, and many and weird are the recipes employed by the cognoscenti to obtain super power.
In actual fact few additives if any, give any improvement in performance, except in the imagination of the user, and the most generally successful fuel has been that compounded of equal parts of good petrol, benzole, and alcohol (either methyl or ethyl). Varying proportions may be required to meet the vagaries and whims of carburetter and induction systems, differing compression ratios, and the mixture-heating effects of really high supercharger pressures.
Information on racing fuels up to 1939 will be found in Motor Racing, the Lonsdale Library Vol. XXVII, published by Seely Service & Co., Ltd., and if light is required on the effects of alcohol fuels on engine mechanisms, reference should be made to the Research Reports of the Institution of Automobile Engineers which are now incorporated in the archives of the Automobile Division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Other interesting points, to an old timer, in “Baladeur’s” article are :
(1) Full floating rear axle—de Dion Bouton made early examples with a solid weight-carrying axle with freely floating half shafts, universally jointed, taking the drive to the road wheels. Some modern German cars provide examples of this design.
(2) Rotary valves—in an early issue of The Motor, when it had a green cover, a patent for rotary valves on the part of Lamberjack, a well-known racing motorcyclist, was described, circa 1905.
(3) Alcohol has a remarkably solvent effect on castor oil (it is not soluble in petrol) and other lubricants and has been suspected as a cause of cylinder wear. It certainly dissolves the gummy residues found with engine carbon and for this reason is sometimes put forward as a decarbonizing agent.
(4) The Serpollet cars mentioned are thought to have been steam cars (full title Darracq-Serpollet). If this is so they used their alcohol for external and not internal combustion, in which case their reactions to the fuel are not comparable with those of the other cars. — L. G. Callingham, M.I.Mech.E., M.I.A.E.