Green Technologies

For many of us, the term “greenhouse effect” is a relatively new one. And ethanol as a fuel source – a new concept?  Using alcohol (ethanol) as a source of renewable energy was on Alexander Graham Bell’s mind over a hundred years ago. He truly was a visionary – far ahead of his time.

The industrial revolution that started in 18th century England led to a huge increase in energy requirements and an alarming rate of depletion of fossil fuel sources such as coal and oil.

Alexander was one of the first advocates of renewable energy as a solution to dwindling coal and oil resources. Following his invention of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell started to take a keen interest in the greenhouse effect.

“Alexander Graham Bell was amongst the first to understand that increasing use of fossil fuels would harm the environment, and that the day was not far away when the sources of such non-renewable forms of energy would dry up. He coined the term “greenhouse effect” to explain the phenomenon of the world becoming warmer due to the burning of fossil fuels.” — Bright Hub

By 1914, Alexander had started exploring various renewable energy sources as possible alternative fuel options. He considered the available alternatives of water power, wood, and direct harnessing of the sun’s rays, but soon identified alcohol or ethanol as the best fossil fuel substitute able to meet the demands of the future.

In his article in the National Geographic Magazine, Volume 31 of February 1917, Alexander Graham Bell suggests alcohol as a “clean, beautiful, and efficient fuel,” which “if not intended for consumption by human beings, can be manufactured very cheaply.”

Alexander Graham Bell advocated the manufacture of alcohol mainly from corn stalks, and from any vegetable matter capable of fermentation, such as growing crops, weeds, waste products or farm stubble, and even garbage from cities.

The big advantages alcohol presented were: it was clean burning, without any harmful emissions, and offered the possibility of a guaranteed continuous supply. Ethanol as a motor fuel also provided the advantage of not “knocking” under high-compression, allowing for engines of high horsepower. Ethanol, however, required high-compression engines to compress the mixture of fuel and air in the cylinder more forcefully.

The further advancement of technology after the Second Word War, led to even greater burning of fossil fuels, resulting in the dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions of recent years, threatening unprecedented changes in global climate and natural ecosystems.

Today gasoline mixed with ethanol finds widespread application. A blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, for instance, powers flex-fuel vehicles and research on ethanol is still ongoing.

Green Activities and Conservation Efforts at Beinn Bhreagh

  • Used waterfalls to produce energy for his labs and the Lodge
  • Designed and had a crematorium built to dispose of sewage
  • Designed and had a dehydrator built to assist Mabel in her experiments with drying vegetables to conserve food supplies during the war
  • Replaced kerosene lighting (fossil fuel) with acetylene gas (water combined with calcium carbide) produced in a “gas house” located close to Beinn Bhreagh Hall
  • Experimented with using wind power and kites to propel boats
  • Used a windmill to provide water for his sheep
  • Developed a means of recycling waste heat from fireplaces into the attic to heat the water for bathing in Beinn Bhreagh Hall

Bell’s Theories and Modern Day

Bell’s concept of using alcohol as a cheap source of renewable energy, is utilized in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, where they have applied Bell’s idea of using alcohol as a fuel source by collecting waste vegetable oil from local businesses and refining it into bio-diesel fuel to power park equipment.

Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site in Nova Scotia applied Bell’s “greenhouse effect” to a solar hot water system in the shower building, saving other energy streams and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The reclamation and conservation of water through condensation was an area of strong interest for Alexander. From 1905 – 1915, he explored the development of water condensation devices; his work was often featured in journals and other publications.