Vol 3 No 2 Suppl. 1 (2019)
Special Issue Article

From Aqua Vitae to E85: The History of Ethanol as Fuel

Seth C Rasmussen
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, North Dakota State University, NDSU Dept. 2735, Fargo, ND 58108-6050, USA

Published 2019-11-22


  • Ethanol, distillation, combustion, spirit lamps, alcohol stoves, engine fuel

How to Cite

Rasmussen, S. C. (2019). From Aqua Vitae to E85: The History of Ethanol as Fuel. Substantia, 3(2), 43–55. https://doi.org/10.13128/Substantia-270


Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is one of the most ubiquitous chemical compounds in the history of the chemical sciences. The generation of alcohol via fermentation is also one of the oldest forms of chemical technology, with the production of fermented beverages predating the smelting of metals. By the 12th century, the ability to isolate alcohol from wine had moved this chemical species from a simple component of alcoholic beverages to both a new medicine and a powerful new solvent. The use of alcohol as a fuel, however, did not occur until significantly later periods, the history of which is generally presented as a separate narrative from its initial applications as intoxicating beverages, medicines, or chemical reagents. The current report aims to more firmly connect these two disparate historical accounts, presenting an overview of the history of ethanol from its initial isolation in the 12th century through its current application as a fuel additive for most automotive vehicles in the United States.