When Johnny Carson started cracking jokes about gasohol last spring, you knew that the hybrid term had finally become a household word. Most people know by now that gasohol stands for a mixture of gasoline and alcohol. But actually, Gasohol, with a capital G, is a trademark standing for a specific blend of 90 percent unleaded gasoline and 10 percent anhydrous ethanol.
Anhydrous ethanol is 200-proof alcohol derived from a starch or sugar agricultural product such as corn, wheat, or sugar cane. It's the same 192-proof alcohol that goes into your vodka, only it's further dehydrated to make it 200-proof. That's drier than the world's driest martini. Why does it have to be that dry? Because too much water in the blend might cause separation, and gasoline usually has some water already in it from moisture in the air or careless storage. Actually, you could use 192-proof in gasohol without any problems, but the proponents of Gasohol insist on 200-proof just to be on the safe side.
FOOD FOR FUEL
Using alcohol as a fuel is nothing new. Henry Ford tried to build an alcohol fuel industry in the 1930s but simply could not compete with gasoline, which was so very cheap and plentiful. But today, with gasoline no longer cheap or plentiful, fuel alcohol has become more and more competitive, not only in terms of cost but also because it offers a good many social benefits. For individualists and survivalists, it offers the possibility of energy independence: it can be produced on a small scale by individual farmers or anyone else with a hankering to do so, and it can be used in any car, tractor, or oil heater with only minor adjustments.
The modern revival of interest in alcohol as a fuel began in 1971 when Sen. Loran Schmidt of the Nebraska legislature sponsored a bill establishing the Agricultural Products Industrial Utilization Committee (APIUC) to help fund research and development of a grain-alcohol-blended-fuel industry in cooperation with private enterprise. The purpose was to effect a marriage between the agricultural and fuel industries so that farmers, with their surpluses, could enter the fuel market. After all, food is the fuel that gives our bodies energy. Why not convert some of it for other energy needs, as well?
Once the APIUC was formed, it went to Dr. William A. Scheller of the University of Nebraska's Chemical Engineering Department for technical and scientific guidance. It was Dr. Scheller who coined the term Gasohol, which was registered as a trademark by the APIUC. Now, gasohol with a little g has come to stand for any mixture of gasoline and alcohol.
In Brazil, for example, where the government is supporting a large-scale program to develop fuel alcohol from sugar cane, the amount of alcohol in the gasohol is already more than 20 percent. The Brazilians, who presently must import more than 80 percent of their oil, want to become completely free of OPEC. Eventually they hope to have their cars run entirely on alcohol, and auto makers there are already producing the cars for it.
The 90/10 blend, however, can be used in any car without any adjustments. I used it in a 1978 Chevrolet Caprice that I rented at the Springfield, Illinois airport, and found that Gasohol performed better than unleaded gas alone. Gasohol gives you a peppier ride, increases mileage, and reduces pollution.
DOWN WITH POLLUTION
The burn characteristics of alcohol make it a highly desirable fuel for high-compression engines. That's why racing car drivers have been using the methanol variety of alcohol for years. Alcohol has a higher octane rating. The octane rating is a measure of a fuel's tendency to preignite in the combustion chamber before the spark plug fires. Low-octane fuel causes more preignition, more knocking, more possible damage to the engine. Alcohol, because it burns cooler than gasoline, has less tendency to preignite, giving it a higher octane rating. When mixed with unleaded gasoline, it creates a premium fuel without the need for MMT—methylcyclopentadienal manganese tricarbonyl—an octane-boosting additive that is used in unleaded gas and has been found to be a pollutant and harmful in catalytic converters.
Another benefit is that when you mix ethanol with unleaded gasoline you get a considerable reduction in noxious emissions. A test to confirm this was conducted in New York City in the spring of 1978 by the New York Daily News. Using a 1977 Chevy Impala, the News used gasohol mixtures with 10 and 15 percent ethanol. At 10 percent ethanol, carbon monoxide emissions were cut 38 percent; at 15 percent ethanol, a dramatic 68 percent. The other exhaust pollutants—hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides—were also reduced.
The News test prompted the Department of Energy to study the impact that gasohol would have on New York's air if 10 percent ethanol were used even just by late-model cars and taxis. The study resulted in estimates that carbon monoxide in the city air could be cut by 17 percent, hydrocarbons would drop 4.5 percent, and nitrogen oxides 0.5 percent. In addition, the study recognized the important social benefits that Americans would derive by using gasohol instead of straight gasoline.
The Department of Energy concluded: "It is principally in the area of social costs that the alcohol-blend approach to emissions reduction appears to have some advantage. In particular, it avoids the inconvenience, loss of personal freedom of movement and additional governmental control associated with new patterns of transportation…and thus sidesteps the trauma of change."
But the trauma of change is exactly what Jimmy Carter is determined to make Americans accept, whether they like it or not, by perpetuating an energy shortage created entirely by government policy. And now that we know what the Carter solution to the energy problem is—price controls, rationing, a windfall profits tax, synfuel development—we can understand why the DOE and the White House until very recently have given almost no encouragement to the development of agrifuels: because agrifuels would solve the "energy shortage" and make the case for government control of energy untenable.
UP WITH MILEAGE
Not only does gasohol reduce exhaust pollutants, but the consensus of its users is that it also gives better mileage. Some oil company spokesmen have challenged this claim, contending that since alcohol has less BTUs than gasoline, it couldn't possibly give better mileage. But it does.
In 1975 the University of Nebraska conducted a two-million mile road test using 45 Nebraska Department of Roads vehicles. Results showed an average 5 percent increase in mileage with gasohol. In Illinois a 90-day test conducted by the state's Department of Administration Services in the winter and spring of 1978 showed a net gain of 6.14 percent in miles per gallon with gasohol. And in a three-month test involving 15 vehicles, the Illinois Bell Telephone Company reported a 4.8 percent mileage increase with gasohol.
The reason for the better mileage is that when alcohol is added to gasoline it adds more oxygen to the mix, thus allowing the gasoline to do its job better. In addition, alcohol burns cooler and cleaner, thereby reducing heat and friction. Temperature under the hood is about 70 degrees cooler in a car using gasohol.
The average American car consumes more than 700 gallons of gasoline a year. By switching from gasoline to gasohol, one would be able to get about 500 more miles of driving on the same amount of fuel. Multiply this by the 100 million registered cars in the United States, and you'd get an extra 50 billion miles of driving using 10 percent less gasoline. If that isn't conservation of petroleum resources, what is?
The only problem with that kind of conservation is that it entails no sacrifice, and Jimmy Carter insists that Americans sacrifice something. When Carter called the energy crisis the "moral equivalent of war," he was doing so to elicit the same spirit of sacrifice that sends thousands of young men to their deaths, makes us give up our pleasures, and saddles the economy with governmental controls. That development of agricultural fuels would make none of this necessary may explain why Carter has shown so little interest in them.
AN ENERGY-OIL EQUATION
Meanwhile, the DOE has been putting most of its development funding into synfuel—the coal-into-gasoline conversion process—through cost-sharing contracts. It's already poured $240 million into Exxon's large-scale coal conversion plant in Baytown, Texas, and it is expected to help fund another large coal-liquefaction demonstration plant at Morgantown, West Virginia. Projections put its total cost at $700 million. The $24 million that the federal government plans to funnel into alcohol fuel research in 1980 serves as a measure of its interest in the gasohol alternative.
Some time ago, in anticipation of the coming oil squeeze, Exxon bought huge deposits of coal in Wyoming, Illinois, and West Virginia. In fact, just about every major oil company has plunged heavily into the coal-mining business. And now they want the federal government to invest about $70 billion in the coal-conversion process to make their shaky investments in coal pay off. While at least seven refiners—including Texaco, Cities Service, Amoco, and Phillips—are now testing the waters with limited marketing of gasohol, it "still has not won enthusiastic support from the oil industry," according to a Business Week report. Said a Gulf Oil spokesman: "We're looking at gasohol, but we're more seriously considering coal technologies and oil shale."
Why is the government so infatuated with coal liquefaction? Probably because most of the DOE's top bureaucrats were recruited from the oil industry and have a fossil-fuel mind set. In addition, the energy industry in this country is the oil business. As yet, there is no agrifuel industry to speak of. Also, because coal liquefaction will cause as many problems (particularly environmental) as it will solve, the need for bureaucratic control of energy production will become self-perpetuating. The last thing the DOE wants to do is solve the energy problem and put itself out of business.
As for the oil companies, they have been against agrifuel because it threatens to break up the fossil-fuel monopoly that has dominated the energy business for so many decades. What the oil companies seem to fear most is the decentralization of liquid fuel production that agrifuel development will make possible. This opposition to alcohol, incidentally, goes back many decades and was always highly vocal whenever alcohol proponents tried to get Washington interested in fuel alcohol projects, as in World War II.
Recently, however, Congress authorized the US Department of Agriculture to provide $60 million in loan guarantees for four pilot alcohol production plants plus an additional $24 million for university research and development. Also, an amendment to the 1978 Energy Bill exempted agrifuel blends from the federal gasoline tax. Some states have also exempted gasohol from their state fuel taxes or sales taxes to encourage its development.
But even if the lawmakers mandated that the nation as a whole switch over to gasohol, it would take 500 plants, each producing 20 million gallons of alcohol a year, to supply present needs. At present there are only three plants in the entire United States producing 200-proof ethanol in any substantial quantity. So we are only at the beginning of the development of an agrifuel industry.
While agrifuel development has been getting some very modest help from the government, it really doesn't need it. OPEC price increases, the tight supply of crude oil, gasoline shortages, long pump lines, the threat of rationing and other market and social factors have been providing enough incentives for agrifuel development. Also, the ease with which alcohol can be produced on a small scale is one of the most attractive and exciting features of this particular energy alternative. Everyone knows that Kentucky moonshiners have been producing corn likker for generations, so the tradition of small-scale alcohol production is well established in America.
Already, research groups are forming to explore the possibilities of small-scale energy self-sufficiency based on alcohol production. One such group is the Domestic Technology Institute of Evergreen, Colorado, a private, nonprofit "research and training organization" that, according to its brochure, "specializes in domestic lifestyle alternatives and domestic solar energy technology."
The institute is utilizing "small-scale decentralized technology to encourage self-sufficiency on an individual, family and community basis." They have developed four basic small-scale alcohol plants. One of their concepts is to provide fuel alcohol and a marketable food or feed by-product to local farmers. Everything would be grown and distributed within a 15-mile radius of the plant: the crop from which the alcohol is produced, the fuel alcohol itself, and the byproduct feed grain.
One of the by-products of alcohol production is distilled dried grains (DDGs), a high-protein residue that, when used as a cattle feed, is so nutritious that it increases beef cattle weight by more than 10 percent over cattle fed on feed grains alone. There are other possible uses of DDGs that could help alleviate the shortage of protein in the world. While they are not, in their present state, usable for human consumption, the University of Nebraska has found a way to extract from them an 80 percent protein powder that could be blended with other foods to supplement, at low cost, the protein-deficient diets of Third World populations.
From one bushel of corn, you get 2.6 gallons of ethanol and 17 pounds of DDGs. A full gasohol program requiring 10 billion gallons of ethanol from 4 billion bushels of corn would yield about 31.5 million tons of DDGs annually. Some economists say we would not know what to do with so much of the stuff, but others see this bounty as a cheap way to feed the world with protein. That's just one of the social benefits an agrifuel industry would provide. But even on a small scale, the DDGs would be of great value to raisers of livestock.
One of the criticisms frequently leveled at fuel alcohol by oil people is that it takes more energy to produce it than what you get back in the fuel produced. But the Brazilian experience has conclusively demonstrated otherwise. Also, the American agrifuel industry itself is just at the beginning of its development, and engineers have scarcely begun to look for energy-saving techniques of production (see box). For example, it is possible to produce alcohol by means of a solar still. This is being done by a university-trained farmer in Minnesota, Lance Crombie, who has invented a simple solar still that almost anyone can put together.
SUNSHINE AND MOONSHINE
Crombie, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Minnesota, first began experimenting with solar collectors in 1976 to reduce his heating bill. "At the same time," he says, "I had about 45,000 bushels of corn sitting out there in my bins. It was worth about $1.60 a bushel on the market, and—since it had cost me about $2.00 a bushel to grow—I wasn't about to sell the grain at that price. So, I put two and two together and decided to turn all that corn into alcohol. I figured that I could use the fuel to heat my house, run my tractors, and all that. There didn't seem to be much information available on alcohol stills per se, but I managed to find out a good bit about fermentation. I built a crude little solar still, whipped up a batch of mash, and was ready to go."
Crombie's original solar still looks like a window measuring three feet by four feet. It's about eight inches deep with two layers of styrofoam on the bottom covered by taut, thick, black plastic, which in turn is covered by a thick layer of black burlap. When in operation, the still is set at a tilt with the glass pane facing the sun. A perforated plastic tube runs across the top of the still. The liquid from the mash is sent through the tube and drips down onto the burlap. The black burlap, sealed behind glass, has the heat of a black vinyl car interior on a hot summer day. The alcohol condenses on the inside of the window and runs down into a separate collection gutter while the remaining mash is recycled. The whole thing cost Crombie $18 to build and produced about 4 gallons of 100-proof alcohol a day.
Naturally, the local agents of the US Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms got wind of Crombie's experimental still and confiscated it. After considerable hassle with the local agents, he wrote directly to the director of the bureau in Washington asking for a special variance of several sections of the code for two years in order to carry on his experiments.
He wrote: "It is my desire to test several sources of fermentable carbohydrates (corn, wheat, barley, and cellulose) with various bacteria and yeasts. I plan to build and experiment with solar stills of differing designs, efficiencies, materials and costs…and to compare these with a classic boiling still. I will test farm uses of alcohol, including use in an oil-fired furnace, in diesel engines, in a corn dryer, and in automobiles."
He concluded by saying that he would use this fuel on his farm and that he planned to sell the solid fermentation byproducts to his neighbors as hog feed. He received his permit in August 1978.
Now, the BATF has become quite cooperative with the gasohol movement, helping ethanol producers to get through the bureaucratic maze. Although industrial or fuel alcohol is not subject to taxation as is beverage alcohol, there are just as many forms to fill out and regulations to comply with. But the bureau has sent representatives to answer questions at National Gasohol Commission seminars and is trying to be as helpful as possible.
Meanwhile, the idea of energy self-sufficiency based on alcohol production is catching on among land-subsistence groups, farmers, survivalists, and rural communities. The Mother Earth News, a decentralist publication, recently came out with several highly detailed articles on how to build your own solar and wood-burning stills, with information on how to get permission from the BATF. And at an alcohol technology fair held on the Washington Mall in April 1979, blueprints for small-scale stills were distributed to interested visitors. Fermentation and distillation technology will soon become as widely known and discussed among survivalists as the value of hard currency and the quality of storage food.
Actually, the most important fact that anyone can know about alcohol production is probably the oldest piece of technical information in the hands of the human race: that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level, whereas alcohol boils and vaporizes at only 170 degrees. All you have to do is take a fermentable substance—grain, potatoes, grapes (anything with sugars and starches)—add yeast to convert natural sugars into alcohol, and that 42-degree spread does the rest. The beer is boiled off and vaporized. The other solids and liquids are left behind. It's so simple that one wonders why we haven't applied the process to the production of fuel alcohol more extensively.
There is no doubt that the development of a large-scale agrifuel industry will have a great beneficial effect on the American economy as a whole. It will change the agricultural picture dramatically by eliminating the rationale for subsidized land set-aside programs, by increasing farm income, by developing new markets for farm products and distillation by-products. It will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, thereby reducing the pollution problem substantially. It will decrease our dependency on foreign oil, improve our balance of payments, stimulate domestic investment in farm land, and improve agricultural technology and distillation equipment and technology. It will also stimulate other forms of alcohol production from cellulose waste and biomass, making inroads into America's huge waste-disposal problems. It will encourage new automotive and solar technology.
Above all, it will tend to increase individual freedom by undercutting the perceived need for the federal farm bureaucracy, the energy bureaucracy, fuel rationing, and the environmental protection bureaucracy. Also, it will end the dominance of fossil fuel as the nation's primary source of energy, with all of the environmental and health problems inherent in fossil fuel use and production. In short, it will give the American dream, based on economic freedom and unlimited opportunity, a new lease on life.
Samuel L. Blumenfeld is a journalist. He has authored numerous articles and several books, including How to Start Your Own Private School—And Why You Need One and The New Illiterates.
ALCOHOL AND "ENERGY BALANCE"
Gasohol doesn't make sense, some critics charge, because it takes more energy to produce the alcohol than you get back by burning it as fuel. But even if this charge were true, it would be irrelevant.
The net-energy concept is fallacious—a modern-day analogue of the labor theory of value. What counts is not the amount of energy or labor or any other input. All that matters is whether the cost of production is less than or equal to what people are willing to pay for a product. If alcohol can be produced cheaply enough to be competitive, it will be produced, regardless of how much energy it takes to produce it.
But the argument is also wrong in its particulars. True, conventional distillation of grain to produce beverage-grade alcohol is an energy-intensive process that produces expensive alcohol. But processes under development promise substantial reductions in the amount of energy needed to produce alcohol:
• By using cellulose or cracked corn to absorb some of the water, Purdue University researchers have been able to cut the energy needed to recover dry alcohol from fermentation broths to about 10 percent of the alcohol's fuel value.
• Researchers at Arthur D. Little, Inc., have developed a proprietary solvent-extraction process to derive alcohol from fermentation beer, at an energy cost of 40-60 percent of the alcohol fuel value.
• Engineers at Raphael Katzen Associates in Cincinnati have designed a two-stage distillation process in which heat from the high-pressure step is reused for the low-pressure step. The process consumes energy equal to 65 percent of alcohol's fuel value.
• The ACR Process Corporation in Champaign, Illinois, substitutes gasoline for benzene in the final distillation step to remove water. Since the resulting alcohol is going to be mixed with gasoline later on anyway, there is no need to remove the gasoline and a purification step is eliminated. The total energy cost is 53 percent of the alcohol fuel value.
• Cetus Corporation, a pioneer in genetic engineering, is building a pilot plant in cooperation with National Distillers to produce alcohol by fermentation. Cetus has engineered a strain of yeast that is 30 percent more efficient than those now used to convert sugar to alcohol.
So market forces are hard at work making alcohol production more efficient—not because there must be a positive energy balance but simply to reduce the cost of production.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Gasohol: The 10% Solution".
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.