The Path to Think Big
(II)) Alcohol & CNG
Alcohol as an Energy Source
In 1918 James Scott Maclaurin who was the Dominion analyst wrote in the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology "There is undoubtedly a great future for alcohol as a source of power and heat”,
Like other technologists of his time Maclaurin looked for inspiration to Germany. There he pointed out, some 89 million gallons of alcohol had been produced in 1914 from materials such as potatoes, cereals and beets. He doubted however whether at that time it could be competitive with petrol in New Zealand.
Using indigenous fuels for transport was also a concern for W Donavon Mclaurin’s successor as Director of the Dominion Laboratory. Other countries with no indigenous petroleum were producing ethanol from vegetable sources and requiring its addition to motor spirit. In Germany and Poland a 6% addition was compulsory and in Australia "Shellpol" with 15% alcohol was being marketed. Donavon noted that in New Zealand the situation had not changed since Maclaurin’s paper and that alcohol production was not economic. He prophesised: "- provided it becomes possible at any time to ferment milk-sugar mainly to ethyl alcohol, alcohol could be produced on a large scale from whey”.
Fulfillment of this prophecy came in 1980 when the N.Z. Dairy Co-operatives factory at Reporoa began replacing industrial alcohol imported from Australia with ethanol manufactured by the fermentation of the lactose in whey. Ethanol made from whey now provides all New Zealand’s industrial alcohol requirements as well as potable alcohol for use in spirits.
Methanol like ethanol is an organic alcohol. As we shall see, it played an important part in the search for transport fuels self-sufficiency when the country reacted to a relentless rise in the price of oil over the decade of the 1970s. Over two and one half million tonnes of this simple chemical, the most elemental of the organic alcohols, has been manufactured in New Zealand from the mid 1980s. On a per capita basis, New Zealand is one of the world’s largest methanol producers.
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)
Donavon also described an experiment carried out in Birmingham in which compressed town gas substituted for petrol. While town gas was a satisfactory fuel, he thought methane with its higher calorific value would be preferable. This was another idea that would become a reality in the 1980s.
MacLaurin, .S. 1918: Industrial alcohol in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 1: 180-181.
Donovan, W. 1934: Production of motor fuels and lubricants in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 15: 180 – 181.