My question is simple:

In theory, would an industrial revolution driven exclusively by alcohol fueled internal and external combustion engines in the early 1800s be practical? What effect would this have on the development of modern society?


This would take place in a society that hadn't discovered fossil fuels yet.In an early 1800s Earth. Alchohol fuel also refers to ethanol or methanol.

Bonus question:

If alcohol combustion engines (internal (the ones on most cars) or external (which are boiler type systems, or Stirling engines) combustion engines) aren't practical, then what type of alcohol-fueled propulsion would we see to drive the industry forward?

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    $\begingroup$ Who says our Industrial Revolution wasn't fueled by alcohol? 😎 $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ "What effect would this have on the developement of modern society" is clearly too broad. The actual industrial revolution began with water wheels, i.e., hydropower, and then moved to coal. Burning ethyl alcohol has positive energy balance only in the tropics, where sugar cane grows like a weed; at temperate latitudes, even with our modern technology we still cannot get a positive return of energy investment from burning alcohol -- in the 19th century they would be better served by burning wood. And anyway, a planet with no coal would be fundamentally different from Earth in very many ways. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ No oil, no coal, just alcohol? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ There's nowhere near enough arable to produce all the grain which would be needed to make the alcohol needed for the Industrial Revolution. (They mined a lot of coal.) $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Efialtes then keep in mind that without coal, there will be no mass production of steel and cast iron, they will remain expensive and their quality will vary. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 18:47

5 Answers 5


The interesting part of this question is not the science angle. Alcohol fuels which can be produced from pretty much any organic matter using pretty simple organic chemistry could very well have replaced petrol fuels. I have friends that manufacture and use homemade alcohol as fuel. I also have a neighbor that has a truck that operates on wood gas at speeds in excess of 70 mph. The use of renewable fuel from farming and or industrial wastes would have been much kinder to the earth and humans. It was not because there was no way to gain monopolistic control of the energy source, and extort money from the general populace by controlling the packaging and distribution systems. It is for the exact same reason that Hydrogen (the most common element on the earth) was not allowed as a fuel. In a true educational system, 6th graders would be taught how to build their very own hydrogen generators that would provide limitless power for all stationery and mobile applications. Hydrogen burned as fuel emits two really nasty emissions, pure oxygen and pure water.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed only changed in form. All energy on earth comes from the sun in the form of radiation. All energy is free and always has been. Seizing economic and political control of the source and delivery and packaging of energy for personal profit should be considered a war crime. Imagine a world where energy is converted into its necessary form at its point of use by the individual needing the energy. Petroleum companies, electrical monopolies, pipe lines, rail roads, and governments that pass laws to establish these monopolies would be irrelevant. There is no valid scientific reason that we are not living that dream now.


In theory would an industrial revolution driven exclusively by alcohol fueled internal and external combustion engines in the early 1800s be practical?


Steam became key to the industrial revolution for a simple reason : coal was being mined and coal mines needed pumps driven by a readily available fuel - i.e. by coal.

Steam engines grew in sophistication and in application from that point, but it was the combination of a need for a steady automated action (pumping) and a readily available fuel (no processing required for coal !) that made it take off.

Alcohol is a different thing entirely. You don't find e.g. alcohol lakes conveniently located next to a place you need to do some kind of mechanically repeatable task (like pumping). You don't even find alcohol located in underground reservoirs.

You have to manufacture alcohol. It needs lots of supplies brought to one place and lots of transport to move the alcohol from where you make it to where you need it (not always the same). You ideally needs lots of e.g. coal to fuel the production of alcohol and it's transportation.

And note there's a big difference between making alcohol as in beer and wine and making alcohol as in high purity spirits. And there a similar difference in burning them as fuel.

That's not the same as coal driven stream engines. You start from a need with the easily available fuel and as soon as you get it working it will be refined and improved and new applications become obvious.

And finally of course, it's a sinful waste in an era when alcohol was important as a safe (hygienic !) liquid to drink and water usually was not !

And in that sense alcohol did fuel the industrial worker for a long time, although not so much the industrial revolution. :-)


Steam just got lucky

The Industrial Revolution was more a series of events and inventions than a period of actual dates. It is therefore considered to be the approximate period of 1760–1830.

The first liquid fueled (gasoline) internal combustion engine was built by Robert Street in 1794 — about half-way through the Industrial Revolution.

It could be said that had coal not been so easily obtained and plentiful that gasoline and the combustion engine would have driven the Industrial Revolution, possibly having no more effect than to delay the final outcome of the period by 10-20 years, which would have ultimately had little to no effect on the presence of modern technology today.

Now, specifically addressing alcohol.

The Hot Rod Network explains the following about alcohol vs gasoline fuels:

For purposes of this story when we refer to alcohol we mean methanol or ethanol. Gasoline is much denser from an energy content perspective, meaning it takes less gas (versus alcohol) to make the same power. It’s easier to ignite gasoline than alcohol fuels.

Said simply, gasoline provides better bang for the buck, meaning (somewhat simplistically) the same engine can do more work. Further...

The great things about gasoline and its use in racing engines, is also why it’s inherently a riskier fuel than alcohol, gasoline will ignite in less than ideal conditions, as in outside the engine. And, once it’s lit, it’s harder to extinguish outside of the controlled burning that is taking place in the combustion chamber.

Gasoline will burn the barn down, where Alcohol only might burn the barn down.

There are some upsides, perhaps the most important being...

When you burn alcohol one of the byproducts of combustion is oxygen. This helps enhance the combustion process. Another is the cooling effect of alcohol as it “vaporizes” in the inlet track. This helps create denser air as the air/fuel charge enters the engine, another positive. The cooling effect also helps to cool the engine, at least on the inlet side of the equation. Remember, producing horsepower is all about creating and controlling heat.

In other words, it would be easier to make an operating internal combustion engine with alcohol, even if it wasn't as efficient as gasoline.


I believe it is completely believable to describe (for instance) an alternate history where the internal combustion engine stole steam's thunder. Make coal a scarce commodity and steam would have been relegated to something interesting.

However, when you analyze the whole effect it might have had on history — the anser is ultimately "none." Remember that technological development is a pyramid, with "today" at the top and an absolute mountain of knowledge, experience, perserverance, and luck beneath it.

You're talking about plucking combustion engines from where they were in that mountain and moving them a bit further down the slope. Yes, that would have changed a few things nearby, but ultimately, the shape of the mountain would have remained the same. After all, the line between steam and internal combustion engines and modern computers is mighty thin, if it exists at all (turbines for electricity were an altogether different branch of study).

So, nada, zilch. No impact on society at all, other than maybe to have the 1964 Corvette in 1954 instead.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd actually argue that it was the IC engine that 'got lucky'. When you consider that almost all non-renewable electricity generation (coal, nuclear, natural gas) is really just a large steam turbine, there's an argument to be made that if steam engines had been given the research and development focus that IC engines have received over the last century, we'd all be driving around in high performance steam powered cars that just take a minute or two to warm up when first started. That said, I completely agree with your answer about petrol v. alcohol. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ @TimBII, That's a good point, which is why I mentioned that turbines were a different branch of development. High density is really only useful in highly compact applications, which is why gasoline isn't used for large non-nuclear naval vessels. However, not to continue an argument, but steam comes from heat, and that means burning something when you're a moving car, so I'm not completely convinced that it wasn't steam that got lucky. Higher energy densities will eventually win out (you don't see coal on those big ships, either). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:59
  • $\begingroup$ These are really good points; I can see what you're saying about energy densities, especially in a mobile platform. I'm just wondering though; what about a steam powered car where the steam is generated by the heat of a petrol flame? Would that be more or less efficient than IC engines (that literally waste the heat energy)? In an accident, you'd have steam release to worry about in conjunction with fuel spills, but safety considerations aside, could the energy in the petrol be more efficiently extracted if used to power a steam turbine? $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ @TimBII, if I remember my thermodynamic classes correctly, every time you change energy types (or modes, or medium) you loose efficiency. IC is a two-stage process (combustion -> kinetic). Steam is three-stage (combustion->steam->kinetic). Does that mean it couldn't be done? Not necessarily, but considering today's "anything green at any cost" evironment, you'd think if it could be done, it would have been done. But, then again, there's so much combustion hate right now that no one may be interested if it isn't perceptually 100% renewable. (Ah, marketing...) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ Problem with this answer is that it discuss engines, ignoring coal needed for steel production. Making coal scarce would stop revolution for reasons outside the engine issues $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 23:04

The single biggest problem that you're going to have with this model is the burning temperature of the fuel.

The reason we use petrol (or gasoline as it's called in certain parts of the globe) as a fuel for internal combustion is that its burning temperature is reasonably low (somewhere around 250 degrees C for ignition, a little over 1000 degrees C for flame temp) meaning that when it explodes in the combustion chamber, the expanding gas is enough to push down the piston, and the heat can be absorbed by the metal surrounding the chamber. Despite this, we still need cooling systems to keep the engines from overheating.

Remember, that in these engines, the heat is a waste energy by-product. The internal combustion engine is not powered by heat; it's powered by expanding gasses.

Alcohol (on the other hand) ignites at around 365 degrees C (but burns at around 1920 degrees C). Some modern internal combustion engines can handle that, but the average domestic car (for example) cannot. Early IC engines would have either melted down or exploded with those kind of explosive temperatures inside the cylinders.

Also, alcohol (ironically enough) is harder to produce in industrial quantities than petrol. This is one of the key reasons that biofuels haven't taken off; I read an article around 7 yrs ago now that estimated that to supply just 20% of the USA's fuel needs via biofuel, its complete crop of corn and maize would have to be converted into biofuel. Clearly, that's an unacceptable tradeoff. And that's just converting it to fuel; converting it to pure alcohol would be even less efficient.

So, before we discuss the potential impacts, the question fails at the first limb; no, this isn't a practical solution for two reasons;

1) Engines would have to be much more robust than early IC engines were
2) The fuel production requirements would have been prohibitive.

Mind you; can you imagine the difficulty the British Navy would have had if both their sailors AND their ships were powered by rum in the 19th century?

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    $\begingroup$ Apart from the difficulties of producing large quantities, there is also a qualitative difference. When internal combustion made oil valuable it transformed large quantities of something previously almost worthless to "black gold". This created an economic boom which then fed development of the internal combustion technology. Alcohol production would come from taking fields away from food production. Changing something already valuable and generally considered important to national security (and even survival) over to new unproven use is much worse value proposition -> no boom. $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ Wikipedia tells me the autoignition temperature of ethanol is 365 °C. What am I missing out? $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @OlegLobachev you may not be missing out on anything. I got the figure from here which, when I read it more carefully, talks about peak flame temp, not ignition point. (I'll edit to reflect this a little better). $\endgroup$
    – Tim B II
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ According to Wikipedia, the flame temperatures of both Ethanol and Methanol under a constant pressure adiabatic combustion are less than that of gasoline. This book provides data from an aircraft engine showing a drop in exhaust gas temperatures over gasoline with increasing fraction of ethanol. I believe your source is using faulty assumptions. $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ This is just wrong. IC engines run just fine on ethyl alcohol. It was used as a fuel in many early engines: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_alcohol_fuel The waste heat of IC engines is a function of thermodynamics, not the fuel. Finally, while it might not be possible to replace 100% of the US's vehicle fuel USE with ethanol, the US - where people drive mammoth SUVs & pickups on daily commutes - arguably uses far more than it needs to. A society running on ethanol ab initio would develop in different directions. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 4:57

Alcohol itself is a rather good liquid fuel, though its energy density is much lower. So you can do more or less everything with it than you would with gasoline, though you will need to burn more of it.

As an aside, the first modern rocket, used for the V2 weapon, burned alcohol as it is easier to handle than hydrocarbon. However, newer rockets based on the same principle need to use ultra-purified hydrocarbon (RP1 kerosene) though, as alcohol is simply not energy-dense enough to reach orbital velocities, if they don't want to use cryogenic and/or ghastly toxic fuel.

The big problem will be how much energy the civilisation has access to.

Fossil fuels mostly date back from the Carboniferous period (hence its name), when trees developed cellulose but scavengers hadn't found a way to decompose it yet. For millions and millions of years, non-decomposed tree trunks accumulated, to be slowly turned into hydrocarbon. In effect, those trees accumulated solar energy into fossil fuels like the world's biggest battery.

The industrial revolution used those massive reserves of energy as fuel. To a rather large extent, we are still dependent on it - Germany, the supposed champion of green energy, produces a staggering (and staggeringly polluting) 40% of its electricity by burning coal, since they decided to stop using that awful carbon dioxide producer that is nuclear power. You would be sarcastic too if you were living in a country that has made special efforts to get rid of coal just to breathe polluted air from another country that just went back at it big time in the name of ecology. But I digress again.

The point is, without it, the only energy source you have is primitive wind and hydroelectric mechanical power, and primitive solar power in the form of inefficient plants - grain, cane and wood for example. To an extent, those are used as an auxiliary energy source today as biofuel. WWII shortages, especially under German occupation, even drove creative engineers to build wood-biofuel-powered cars.

The problem is, the energy density per surface area of those is very low. So you simply do not have enough energy for a historical-type Industrial Revolution, by a wide margin.

You have some factories, but not the massive urban exodus and goods production that saw the XIXe Century. You have some trains, but not nearly as much. You have some combustion engine boats, but mostly warships - freight is using cost-effective, modern sailing ships. Planes, at first, should be less affected as they represented a smaller percentage of fuel use in general.

A possible upside is, the WWI Western Front equivalent may not quite be such a meat-grinder, as the war and its horrors were fuelled precisely by the industrial power of the belligerents. Without enough fuel, there is neither enough industry for weapons and - more importantly - artillery shells, nor even possibly for bringing enough food to the trench lines.


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