Hydrocarbons versus carbohydrates: the continuing battle in the United States

by David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Recent political and technological changes have enabled plant materials to replace some of the petroleum compounds used by industry. Farmers will only benefit significantly, though, if they own the companies that turn their crops into the chemicals that industry requires.

Vegetable matter and minerals have competed with each other to become the dominant industrial input for almost 200 years. For the first 150 years, significant advances occurred in the use of both types of material. Then, for a quarter of a century after World War II, hydrocarbons took over almost completely but since the 1980s, carbohydrate-derived industrial products have been sweeping back as a result of technological and political developments.

In 1820, the United States was a carbohydrate economy and Americans used about two tons of vegetable matter for every ton of minerals. Fifty years later, 70 percent of the country's energy was still generated by burning wood. Even as late as 1891, only two of 161,000 miles of railroad tracks were made of metal.

The battle between hydrocarbons and carbohydrates began when scientists developed methods to recover and purify organic chemicals such as phenol, benzene, naphthalene from the tars and gases produced when coal was turned into coke for the steel industry. On the carbohydrate side, scientists relied on cotton lint (the short fuzz left on ginned seeds), and after the mechanical process for making paper was introduced, wood pulp.

Before the Civil War, ethyl alcohol (ethanol) from grain was one of the nation's leading chemicals, used chiefly as a solvent and an illuminant. In 1828 Michael Faraday made ethanol from coke-oven gases but making alcohol from agricultural feedstocks was much cheaper.

In 1869 two New Jersey printers, John and Wesley Hyatt modified nitrocellulose to make a highly successful commercial plastic they called celluloid, a word derived from cellulose, the largest single component of plants. A modified celluloid became the basis for the photography industry and films. To this day Hollywood still calls its movies "celluloids" although one would doubt that even Steven Spielberg knows why.

In the 1890s the first synthetic fibre, rayon, was made from wood pulp. In 1910 Leo Baekeland began commercial production of Baekelite, the world's first thermoset plastic. Charles Kettering later declared he would not have perfected electric starting, lighting and ignition systems, devices that revolutionized motoring in 1911, without this plant-derived plastic. The first film plastic, wood pulp-derived cellophane, was introduced in the 1920s.


One reason that carbohydrates lost ground to hydrocarbons is that they were handicapped by one of their most desirable features - products derived from them often can be pleasurably ingested. In 1861, to pay for the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln imposed a $2.08 spirits tax on alcohol and, almost overnight, the ethanol industry disappeared. Forty-five years later, The New York Times 1 editorialized, "It is only the heavy tax imposed by the United States that has prevented the use of a large number of vegetable products for the manufacturing of an exceedingly cheap and available alcohol". In 1906, under pressure from Theodore Roosevelt, one of big oil's most prominent critics, Congress finally freed industrial alcohol from the onerous tax. The ethanol industry revived and made rapid progress only to be killed off again in 1919 when the US adopted a constitutional amendment that banned the production and sale of beverage alcohol. The amendment was overturned in 1933.

Although at the end of the 19th century, Americans used about one ton of carbohydrates for every one ton of hydrocarbons, by 1920 the ratio had changed dramatically to about two tons of hydrocarbons for every one ton of carbohydrates. But the fight was not over.

World War I had brought major advances in industrial fermentation techniques for making products like acetone. By 1918, ethanol production rose to a new high of 60 million gallons a year. In 1920, Baekelite constituted 30% of all plastics made in America and an additional 25% were made of cellulose acetate.

Advances in both hydrocarbon and carbohydrate chemistry came quickly. The average price of non coal tar chemicals dropped by a factor of three from the 1921 level. Production of organic chemicals derived from petroleum rose from 21 million pounds in 1921 to 3 billion pounds in 1939.

On the carbohydrate side, the price of acetic anhydride dropped from $1.25 a pound in 1930 to 35 cents in l939. That spurred the growth of acetate plastics. Injection molding of cellulose acetate was introduced in the early 1930s. By the start of World War II production exceeded 50 million pounds per year.

In the mid 1920s, a remarkable coalition of scientists, farm leaders and industrialists came together to promote a carbohydrate economy. It began with the publication of a long article entitled 'Farming Must Become a Chemical Industry' in the Dearborn Independent in 1926. The author was William Hale, the husband of the daughter of the founder of Dow Chemical and a renowned organic chemist. The number of reprints distributed rapidly exceeded 500,000, spawning what came to be known as the chemurgy movement. 2

Dr. Hale summed up the reason for the movement from the chemists' perspective when he wrote: "We chemists felt sincerely that the whole sphere of chemical activity had become distorted. What waste and destruction in the birth of coal tar! What frightful losses in breaking of seals to valuable hydrocarbon reservoirs! Surely an all-seeing Providence has provided man with better means of advancing chemically and in simpler fashion and with no depletion of resources."3


Henry Ford summed up the reason for the movement from the perspective of industry. "If we industrialists want the American farmer to be our customer, we must find a way to become his customer. That is what I am working for."

Hale realized that theirs was an uphill struggle. "The prohibition plague set this country back fourteen years in organic technical progress", he observed. "It is absolutely impossible for us to advance in organic chemical operations without low-priced basic organic compounds such as alcohol."

In 1935 the First Conference of Agriculture, Industry and Science took place. By the late 1930s some 30 regional chemurgic councils were studying crops peculiar to their areas. In 1941 Congress appropriated $4 million to establish four regional centres to research industrial applications for plants. These centres still operate today.

As early as the Model A, Ford cars were equipped with an adjustable carburettor designed for alcohol as well as gasoline. By 1940 the Ford automobile plant included one of the largest plastic molding facilities in the country. More than 21,000 tons of soybeans were used to make the plastics that went into Ford cars. In 1941 Ford unveiled a cream colored car whose body was 70 percent cellulose and 30 percent resin binder. It needed no painting or polishing. Minor bumps sprang back into shape. The cellular organic material was cooler in summer and warmer in winter than its steel equivalent. It also reduced noise.

In 1942 the government awarded $650 million in contracts to 25 major oil and chemical companies to produce 800,000 tons of oil-based synthetic rubber. When these companies failed to produce the materials needed, the government ordered the nation's whiskey distilleries to make industrial alcohol. By 1944 the U.S. was producing nearly 600 million gallons of alcohol a year. About one half was used for making synthetic rubber. The rest was used for aviation and submarine fuels and medicines. The federal rubber director, William Jeffer declared at the time that without alcohol produced from grain "the invasion of France could not have been accomplished at the time it was."

"As late as 1944", writes W.J. Reader in his history of the giant British chemical corporation, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), "ICI apparently gave relatively equal weight to coal, oil, and molasses as feedstocks for the production of heavy organic chemicals" 4 After World War II, however, the battle for supremacy between the carbohydrate and hydrocation appeared over. Federal support for carbohydrate chemistry disappeared. The chemurgy movement faded out. By 1949 less than 10 percent of industrial alcohol was made from grain. By 1970 two thirds of US textile fibres were made from petroleum, over 80 percent of electricity was generated from fossil fuels and not a drop of transportation fuel was derived from plants. The result? By 1980 Americans were consuming 8 tons of minerals for every ton of material derived from plants. 5

And then the pendulum began to swing back for political and technological reasons. Politically, the introduction of environmental regulations made plant-derived products increasingly competitive. For example, when jurisdictions began banning non-degradable plastics for certain applications, starch-based plastics entered the market. Technologically, advances in the biological sciences reduced the cost of producing bioproducts. The cost of making industrial enzymes, for example, dropped by more than 75 percent between 1980 and 1995. The cost of absorbable sutures made from milk-derived lactic acid was as much as $250 per pound in 1991. By 2002, the cost of corn-derived polylactic acid dropped to less than $1 per pound.

These changes meant that natural fibres' share of the textile market had moved above 50 percent again by 1989. By 2002 over 2 billion gallons of grain-derived ethanol were being used in vehicles. Moreover, vegetable oils were replacing mineral oils in inks and hydraulic fluids.

In 1998 President Clinton declared a goal of tripling the quantity of biofuels and bioproducts used in the country by 2010. In 2002, the U.S. Congress' Biomass R&D Technical Advisory Committee which advises the Secretaries of Energy and Agriculture and whose members were mostly appointed by President Bush, established even loftier goals 6.

In 1990, 55 years after the first chemurgic conference, another was held. Fittingly, Wheeler McMillen, President of the Farm Chemurgic Council in the 1930s and chair of the first conference, delivered the keynote. "We have experienced nearly six decades of political attempts to strengthen agriculture, with much hope hanging on foreign markets", he declared. "But we know them to be fragile, susceptible to competition or to collapse from other causes. In contrast, new industrial markets for our crops will have the virtue of permanence."

I coined the term "the carbohydrate economy" in the 1980s to describe an industrial economy where farmers would participate in the value-added step in the production chain. "A carbohydrate economy walks on two legs: a dramatic expansion in the market for industrial products and fuels made from plants; and an equally dramatic expansion in local and farmer-owned manufacturing capacity".


This idea - that in the carbohydrate economy, ownership matters as much as market expansion - began to guide certain public policy makers. In 2002, the Biomass Advisory Committee delivered its first report to the Secretaries of Energy and Agriculture. Among its conclusions was, "Expanding the use of biomass for nonfood and feed purposes will benefit farmers and rural areas only indirectly and modestly. A more significant development would occur if farmers themselves were able to produce the biofuels or bioproducts, either on the farm or as owners in a local production plant."

The best example of this theory put into practice occurred in Minnesota. In the early 1980s Minnesota created an incentive that mirrored that of the federal incentive-a partial exemption from the state tax on gasoline. That incentive succeeded in creating a demand for ethanol, but the demand was met entirely by ethanol imported into the state from very large plants owned by global agribusiness corporations like Archer Daniels Midland.

In the mid 1980s Minnesota converted its state ethanol incentive from a market-oriented excise tax exemption to a producer payment. Rather than reduce state gasoline taxes by a couple of cents a gallon, the state instead paid the equivalent directly to the producer, 20 cents a gallon, for ethanol produced within the state. The incentive was paid only for the first 15 million gallons produced (a typical ADM-owned ethanol facility produces over 100 million gallons a year). The incentive encouraged the formation of many small and medium-sized plants, the scale of which enabled widespread farmer ownership.

By 2002 Minnesota boasted 15 ethanol plants, 12 of which were owned by more than 9,000 Minnesota grain farmers. These were providing the fuel for almost 10 percent of all Minnesota transportation. And the state was moving into the next phase: the use of 85 percent - ethanol/gasoline fuel blends rather than 10 percent ones. So the race between carbohydrates and hydrocarbons is on. Again.


1. New York Times. May 22, 1906
2. Hale, William. The Farm Chemurgic. The Alpine Press: Boston, 1934.
3. Borth, Christy. Modern Chemists and their Work. The New Home Laboratory: New York, l942
4. Spitz, Peter. Petrochemicals: The Rise of an Industry. John Wiley and Sons: New York, 1988
5. Morris, David; Ahmed, Irshad. The Carbohydrate Economy: Making Chemicals and Industrial Materials from Plant Matter. Institute for Local Self-Reliance: Minneapolis, 1992
6. Vision for Bioenergy & Biobased Products in the United States. United States Department of Energy: Washington, D.C., October 2002

This is one of almost 50 chapters and articles in the 336-page large format book, Before the Wells Run Dry. Copies of the book are available for £9.95 from Green Books.

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