Fueled by passion: George Washington Carver played an important role in today’s bioeconomy

George Washington Carver Frances Benjamin Johnston/Public domain/Wikimedia

Throughout the month of February, Americans celebrate Black History Month and remember the significant contributions historic figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and many more in the African American community, have provided our country. The impact of their legacies continues to resonate today, benefiting generation after generation.

Many of these contributions are well-known, but many risk being lost to the history books. Take, for instance, George Washington Carver. While schoolchildren still learn about his extensive research focusing on peanuts, it is safe to assume few are aware of his interest in using agricultural products to produce energy.

At age 10, Carver left home to pursue an education. His interest in plants led him to earn a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science and a graduate degree at Iowa State University. Carver then spent most of his career teaching and researching at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, devoting himself to sustainable farming, including the development of new uses for crops.

Carver and his students developed more than 300 industrial uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and other crops. Although he is probably best known for his work with peanuts, Carver shared an interest with fellow inventor Henry Ford in developing alternative fuels. The two began a lengthy correspondence often focused on the development of biofuels.

Ford had long believed that ethanol and biofuels were “the fuel of the future.” He once stated that “there is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.” Carver shared this vision and Ford believed he had a great deal to learn from Carver’s work with agricultural products.

Ford actually designed the original Model T to run on both ethanol and petroleum. With great foresight, both Carver and Ford believed that petroleum supplies would become limited in the future. As a result, Ford showcased an experimental car in 1942 that ran on ethanol and was built using a plastic body made from soybeans. As ambitious as their ideas were, the dream Ford and Carver shared of a future powered by biofuels did not happen in their lifetimes.

Today, however, Minnesotans are using homegrown biofuels, like ethanol, more than ever before. Recently released data from the U.S. Department of Energy shows that Minnesota uses more ethanol than any other state in the U.S. as a percentage of total fuel usage. The national average ethanol blend rate was 9.91 percent, according to the DOE data, but ethanol comprised 12.5 percent of the gasoline pool in Minnesota in 2015.

Why are biofuels like those championed by Ford and Carver important? Ethanol is vital to breaking America’s dependence on foreign oil. Every truckload of ethanol displaces more than 60 barrels of imported oil. Ethanol also cuts greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 43 percent, allowing for a greener future for coming generations.

Today, ethanol is blended in all gasoline sold in Minnesota, primarily comprising 10 percent of the fuel you use in your car. However, a growing number of gas stations in the state offer higher blends of ethanol such as E15, a 15 percent ethanol blend that works well in all cars made 2001 and newer. This 21st century fueling option gives drivers a choice at the pump that cuts emissions while also providing their engines more horsepower at a reduced price point.

Today, more than 70 years later, the biofuel ideas pioneered by George Washington Carver and Henry Ford — using more clean-burning, homegrown fuels — are finally becoming a reality.

As Minnesotans observe Black History Month, we should all take time to remember the contributions made by George Washington Carver to the development of today’s biofuels and bioeconomy.


Steve Anderson is a small business owner in St. Paul.