Methanol (CH3OH) is a clear and colourless liquid that is also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, since it was first derived from wood sources. The idea of extracting alcohol from wood as an energy source (by subjecting it to hydrolysis and fermentation) is actually quite old. As early as 1819, French scientists were publishing papers on the topic.
However, large-scale industrial production of wood alcohol was first accomplished in the United States in 1910, using pine sawdust and sulphuric acid heated by steam, with the extract (turpentine) treated with fermentation processes to recover alcohol.
In France, the manufacture of alcohol from sawdust was studied and implemented industrially in a distillery in the Ardèche region around 1914. During the First World War, there was increasing interest in wood alcohol as a new energy source to power vehicles, provide lighting for lamps and meet other energy requirements for national defence.
Some historians suggest that the proliferation of alcohol stills during this period may have prolonged the war, since in Germany thousands of engines were converted to run on alcohol.
These early attempts to manufacture wood alcohol in both Europe and America were hampered by difficulties with corrosion (due to the acids) and the vast amounts of wood products or sawdust required to produce commercially viable amounts of alcohol.