Alcohol fermentation technology, used in almost every society, is among the oldest of man's deliberate transformations of organic substances. Although best known as potable spirits, ethanol was also commonly used in lamps and in internal combustion engines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After World War II, the availability of a cheap, plentiful petroleum supply for transportation needs displaced alcohol fuels, except for certain specialized uses such as racing-fuel mixtures. The current worldwide revival of interest in alcohol fuels reflects the rise of petroleum prices to a level that may make alcohol fuels competitive.
Brazil has adopted a national policy of using ethanol mixed at a level of about 20 percent with gasoline. The government has also encouraged the development and manufacture of automobiles designed to run on straight alcohol; some 700,000 such automobiles are already in use in Brazil. In the United States, the use of alcohol in gasoline-ethanol mixtures, known as "gasohol," is subsidized. And in many developing countries, government and industry are considering the use of locally produced alcohol fuels to reduce the burden of foreign exchange payments for petroleum products; some have already begun constructing facilities to produce alcohol fuels from indigenous materials.
Governments or entrepreneurs planning to substitute alcohol for petroleum fuels must weigh diverse considerations. On the positive side, the production and use of alcohol fuels can result in:
· Increased national security and; self-sufficiency because of lessened dependence on other countries
· A better balance of trade
· Increased employment, particularly in rural areas
· A basis for enhanced technical sophistication
· An expanded chemical industry
· An improved urban environment because of fewer engine emissions
· An improved agricultural base, if the fuel program is organized to increase rural productivity.
Possible negative factors include:
· Use of food staples to produce energy
· Diversion of scarce resources such as capital, technical capacity, water, or land from more urgent uses
· A degraded rural environment owing to misuse of land or water pollution from alcohol by-products.
This report summarizes information on alcohol fuel technologies for planners, investors, and technical assistance agencies in developing countries. Although the information is primarily aimed at the nontechnical reader, it does include some details of the technologies; references are included for those who wish more specialized information.