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There’s nothing new under the sun – a brief look at historical climate change patents – Part 5: Biofuels


18th Nov 2021

Reducing humanity’s reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Biofuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol represent more sustainable alternatives to their fossil fuel counterparts: petrol and diesel. Lifecycle analysis shows that biodiesel and bioethanol also on the whole have superior environmental performance when compared with fossil fuels in areas such as global warming, fossil depletion and ozone layer depletion.1 Is this technology new? Of course not.

Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils and animal fats. Over the last decade, biodiesel has experienced a greater increase in production than any other biofuel. Biodiesel produces emissions with a 90% reduction in total unburned hydrocarbons during combustion when compared with diesel, and is sulphur-free. However, biodiesel produced from crops or even non-edible materials such as wood or husks has been widely criticised as conflicting with food production.2 More recently microalgae, which do not require cultivable land and fresh water to be produced, have been touted as a potential alternative feedstock for biofuel generation.3      

Use of such renewable oils is not however a new idea. On 9th August 1898, Rudolf Diesel was granted US patent no. 608,845 for the ‘internal combustion engine’ which originally ran solely on peanut oil. Diesel himself foresaw a future where vegetable oils would one day rival fossil fuels.  

Later, in 1937 Georges Chavanne filed Belgium patent no. 422,877 for a ‘process for the transformation of vegetable oils with a view to their use as fuels’. The patent disclosed a process involving treating vegetable oils with low molecular weight alcohols in the presence of a strong acid in a process known as trans-esterification in order to form biodiesel. Bioethanol is produced by fermenting sugars found in crops such as sugar cane or corn (following hydrolysis of its starch). The potential of ethanol as a fuel has been known for well over a century.

On 1st April 1826, Samuel Morey was granted US patent no. 4,378X for a gas or vapour engine. In those days patent documents were a work of art in themselves. The Morey engine functioned by forming an explosive mixture of air and ethanol vapour mixed with turpentine. A few decades later, Nicolaus Otto used ethanol in his own ground-breaking internal combustion engine.  

Almost exactly 100 years after Morey’s patent was granted, on 23rd March 1926, Thomas Midgley was granted US patent no. 1,578,201 for “fuel comprising an admixture of substantially 50% commercial ethanol, and 50% of a cracked gasoline, said cracked gasoline consisting of saturated hydrocarbons and unsaturated hydrocarbons, or olefines in the proportions of substantially 84% and 16% respectively.” Midgley stated in the patent application for this ethanol blended mixture that the invention related to fuel adapted for use in an internal combustion engine. He identified that such a ‘satisfactory and practicable fuel’ was required to supplement the available supplies of hydrocarbon fuels.  

In the end, despite his acknowledgement of the potential of ethanol as a fuel, greed took hold. Midgley’s discovery of the anti-knocking agent tetraethyllead (TEL), as described in US patent 1,592,953 “Method and means for treating motor fuels”, eclipsed ethanol as a fuel additive – not in functionality but in profits. TEL was quite hideously branded as ‘Ethyl’, conveniently avoiding mention of the toxic ‘lead’ component that haunted its composition. Midgely’s invention and passionate defence of leaded petrol contributed to his status, as coined by historian J. R. McNeill, as the individual who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history”. It was only in August of this year, almost a century later, that there were finally no more countries using the catastrophic pollutant, leaded petrol, to power cars and lorries4.

It is a sad fact to consider how long successful biofuels have been known, and even more remarkable to consider that they were originally considered the default fuel source for engines by many early inventors. One can only imagine how many premature deaths and how much damage to our planet could have been avoided had biofuels taken centre stage instead of fossil fuels all those years ago.

  1. Hafizan, C. and Zainura, N. Z. (2013). Biofuel: advantages and disadvantages based on life cycle assessment (LCA) perspective, J. Environ. Res. Develop., Vol. 7, No. 4.
  2. Mahlia, T. M. I. et al. (2020). Patent landscape review on biodiesel product: technology updates, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Vol. 118.
  3. Khan, M. I., Shin, J. H., & Kim, J. D. (2018). The promising future of microalgae: current status, challenges, and optimization of a sustainable and renewable industry for biofuels, feed, and other products. Microbial cell factories, 17(1), 36. 
  4. Highly polluting leaded petrol now eradicated from the world, says UN – BBC News

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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Daniel Marchant
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