After General Motors scientists discover the anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead gasoline in 1921, American motorists will be saying, “Fill ‘er up with Ethyl.”

tetraethyl lead gasoline

Public health concerns will result in the phase-out of tetraethyl lead in gasoline beginning in 1976.

tetraethyl lead gasoline

General Motors chemists Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles F. Kettering.

In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” resulted from the out-of-sequence detonation of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder.

The constant shock frequently damaged the engine.

After five years of lab work to find an additive to eliminate pre-ignition “knock” problems of gasoline, General Motors researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead.

Their early experiments had examined the properties of knock suppressors such as bromine, iodine and tin – and compare these to new additives such as arsenic, sulfur, silicon and lead.

On December 9, 1921, when the two chemists synthesized tetraethyl lead and tried it in their one-cylinder laboratory engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared.

Although being diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand, the lead additive yielded gasoline without the loud, power-robbing knock.

With GM scientists watching, the first car tank filled with leaded gas took place in February 1923 at a filling station in Dayton, Ohio.

“Ethyl,” the world’s first anti-knock gasoline containing a tetraethyl lead compound quickly proved popular with motorists. It’s properties would prove vital for aviation engines during World War II.

tetraethyl lead gasoline

Phillips Petroleum produced tetraethyl leaded aviation fuels from high-quality oil found in Osage County, Oklahoma, oilfields.

Powering Allied Victory in World War II 

Aviation fuel technology was still in its infancy in the 1930s. The properties of tetraethyl lead proved vital to the Allies during World War II.

Advances in aviation fuel increased power and efficiency, resulting in the production of 100-octane aviation gasoline shortly before the war.

Phillips Petroleum – today’s ConocoPhillips – was involved early in aviation fuel research and had already provided high gravity gasoline for some of the first mail-carrying airplanes after World War I.

Phillips Petroleum produced aviation fuels before it produced automotive fuels. The company’s gasoline came from the high-quality oil produced during the Osage County oil boom, which began in 1917.

tetraethyl lead gasoline

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the future of the United Kingdom depended on leaded “avgas,” still used today.

Although today still an ingredient of 100 octane “avgas” for piston-engine aircraft, tetraethyl’s danger to public health was underestimated for decades.

Ethyl’s Dark Side

Leaded gasoline was extremely dangerous from the beginning, according Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer.

“G.M. and Standard Oil had formed a joint company to manufacture leaded gasoline, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation,” she notes in a 2011 article. Research focused solely on improving the formula, not on the danger of the lead additive.

“The companies disliked and frankly avoided the lead issue,” Blum writes in “Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History” at Wire.com. “They’d deliberately left the word out of their new company name to avoid its negative image.”

In 1924, dozens were sickened and five employees of the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, died after they handled the new gasoline additive.

In May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, Blum says, and an investigative task force was formed. Researchers concluded there was ”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.

So great was the additive’s potential to improve engine performance, the author notes, by 1926 the federal government approved continued production and sale of leaded gasoline. “It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive,” Blum adds.

In the 1950s, geochemist Clair Patterson discovered the toxicity of tetraethyl lead; phase-out of its use in gasoline began in 1976 and was completed by 1986. In 1996, EPA Administrator Carol Browner declared, “The elimination of lead from gasoline is one of the great environmental achievements of all time.”

Learn more in Flight of the Woolaroc and  Cantankerous Combustion – First U.S. Auto Show.

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Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program Exploring Energy, 9 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of every month. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society today with a tax-deductible donation. © This Week in Petroleum History, AOGHS 2016.