National Geographic : 1981 Feb 28
distilleries in the state of Illinois alone. "To understand the alcohol movement," said the man who is one of its mainsprings, "you must understand its economics. Run a bushel of corn through a still, and you get two and a half gallons of alcohol, plus by products, that almost double the corn's val ue-and help provide energy independence for America." These economics are warmly disputed. To make alcohol profitable for distillers large and small, federal and state tax incen tives create a hefty subsidy. New, fuel efficient distilleries should reduce costs and also end the argument that alcohol is "ener gy negative," requiring more energy to make than it delivers. An acre of corn yields about 250 gallons of alcohol, an acre of sweet sorghum or sugar beets twice that, and sugarcane even more. This year the nation's distilleries will pro duce about 200 million gallons of this renew able resource, enough to convert only 2 percent of our gasoline into gasohol. By the mid-eighties the government hopes to see ten times this capacity. How much is possible? At what point does farming for fuel compete with farming for food, causing inflated grocery prices? A study by the Office of Technology Assess ment finds that food prices could feel infla tionary pressures when alcohol production from farm crops reaches two billion gallons a year. Proponents claim that by using wood, food-processing residues, and sur plus and diseased crops, the nation can pro vide the 11 billion gallons of alcohol a year needed to convert our gasoline to gasohol. Brazil Switches to Alcohol Meanwhile, Brazil has boldly committed itself to an alcohol-fuel economy. Distilleries there ingest endless servings of sugarcane, cars burn gasohol made with 20 percent eth anol, and auto plants turn out models to run on straight alcohol-a growing trend in this oil-shy country. Another promising synfuel is methanol, the alcohol that wears the skull and cross bones and fuels your fondue burner. It also is the fuel of the racing car, a high-octane fluid that accelerates autos with neck-jolting speed. Methanol is so versatile, so available, and relatively so inexpensive and environ mentally acceptable that it could someday end up in your car.