MadSci Network: Science History

Re: How do you make small batchs of wood alcohol?

Date: Mon Dec 7 18:43:56 1998
Posted By: Samuel Conway, Senior Scientist, Message Pharmaceuticals, Aston, PA
Area of science: Science History
ID: 911759936.Sh

First off, let's not underestimate the ingenuity of "simple" farmers! Some
phenomenal inventions have come from farmworkers trying to make their jobs
a bit easier.

It has been known since about the 1600's that methanol was produced when
wood was burned into charcoal.  One of these farmers may have known this,
or might have had a son or daughter in university.  

No one will ever know how a farmer happened to think of the idea; all we
do know is that necessity is the mother of invention.

Simply heating wood in an oxygen-starved atmosphere will produce some
methanol.  The farmers, perhaps already accustomed to collecting ethanol
from fermenting corn-squeezings, could easily distill this material out --
crudely, but effectively enough to make a bit of fuel for when the
petrol ran out.

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