While many North Americans may not know it, Brazil presently leads the world in deploying biofuels for road vehicles.
Specifically, a majority of cars sold in Brazil--especially lower-priced high-volume models built in the country--can run either on gasoline or pure ethanol.
The modern history dates back to 1975, when the South American country began its “Programa Nacional Álcohol” to counteract the soaring oil and gasoline prices that followed the 1973 oil crisis.
Even before then, however, ethanol had been blended into Brazil's gasoline supplies, starting with a 5-percent mix in 1931.
During World War II, with German submarine attacks threatening the country's oil supply, the "gasoline" used to fuel cars of the 1920s and 1930s could contain as much as 50 percent ethanol,
The country's use of ethanol over the last 40 years can be divided into two eras: the ethanol-only-car era, and the flex-fuel era.
From cane field to tank
But following the 1973 oil-price shock, the country's main agricultural crop, sugar cane, was pressed into duty for a new purpose: it served as the feedstock for ethanol refineries, creating a largely renewable liquid fuel that could be used to replace gasoline altogether in powering internal combustion engines.
Ethanol molecule flaskEnlarge Photo
Cars capable of running on ethanol arrived on the Brazilian market in the late 1970s. In those days, before electronic fuel injection replaced carburetors, they could run either on E100 ethanol or conventional gasoline—but not both.
Those first ethanol-powered cars included popular models from Fiat, Renault, Volkswagen, and other makers. The Fiat 147 was the first commercially available ethanol-capable car sold in dealerships, starting in July 1979.
The Volkswagen Sedan 1300 entered production that year as well, and by October 1980, the rest of the VW lineup in Brazil offered ethanol-capable models.
Still, many of those cars suffered from a reluctance to start in cold weather, and sometimes erratic running characteristics.
Cars for the poor
Ethanol was then cheaper than gasoline—even after accounting for the lower energy content that produces fewer miles per gallon—but many Brazilians today recall those early E100 vehicles as “poor peoples’ cars,” bought solely because they were cheaper to own and run.