Iowa is in the midst of an unprecendented gasohol boom -- fuled by a surplus supply of corn. In less than two years the number of Iowa gas stations pumping gasohol has spurted from only five to 800. That makes this state the nation's leading gasohol marketer.
Consumer demand here is so great that Standard Oil of Indiana will soon begin substituting gasohol for its lead-free premium at all 600 of its Amoco stations in Iowa.
Through Iowa corn is the basis of the Alcohol in the blend, the grain until now had to be shipped out of state for processing -- then imported back in for motorists' use.
Ground now has been broken for the first in-state distillery in Cedar Rapids. A second distillery, which will use waste steam from a nearby coal-fired electrical plant as an energy source, is soon to be built in Sioux City.
"No one had any idea that gasohol would take off the way it has -- it just banana-ed on us," says an Iowa Development Commission spokesman.
Iowa farmers, who stand to gain if demand for gasohol boosts sagging corn prices, are not only buying it for their cars and pickup trucks but are eager to build their own stills.
"There's an unreal amount of insterest -- so much that it's frustrating," says Thatcher Johnson, Iowa's deputy secretary of agriculture. "We're optimistic and we want to encourage farmers, but it's questionable whether or not as small operators at this stage they can really get the consistent quality of alcohol that's needed to go through the carburetor."
One reaon Iowans in record numbers are filling their tanks with gasohol is that many feel they are not only helping the nation become more energy independent by it, but also are helping their state -- the nation's No. 1 corn producer -- become more prosperous.
That sentiment is clearly being encouraged. Yellow banners from the Iowa Corn Promotion Board proclaiming "We've got gasohol" are strung high across many of the gasohol pumps. At other stations "Help Iowa grow" signs beckon motorists to fill up witht he gasohol blend. some farmers post their own variation: "My cornfield is your oilwell."
"I think the main reason people buy it is as a kind of symbolic support of agriculture," says one Iowa lawyer who regularly fills up his car with gasohol.
"There's a lot of patriotism in it," concedes Iowa Agriculture Deparment spokesman Wayne Messerly.
"Some people remember using grain alcohol as fuel in the '40s, and almost everybody that comes by seems willing to try it at least once," says Robert Hale , owner of a DX service station just south of Fort Dodge.
Gasohol sales in Iowa have benefited from strong support by the Lagislature, the farming community, which has long had its eye on the fule's potential for attracting industry and jobs to the state. Most state government cars tank up with gasohol as an example for consumers.
Many Iowans who use the alternative fuel in their cars insist they get better mileage and better performance. But lively debate continues here as elsewhere over just how economical and energy-efficient gasohol is and how its increasing use may affect the future price and supply of food.
Proponents concede that the state and federal government are efectively subsidizing gasohol use here at the rate of about 11 cents a gallon by exempting it from everything except a 3 percent state sales tax. Even at that, a gallon of gasohol is sometimes more expensive than gasoline.
Yet, for now at least, many Iowans are ready and willing pay more for it.
Althoug many argue that gasohol currently requires more energy input than it can deliver to a car engine, proponents say technological breakthroughs that could radically change the situation are close at hand. They point to an Iowa State University experiment aimed at eliminating the alcohol distillation process and saving up to one-half the energy now used.
Gasohol backers also have a ready anawer for those such as Worldwatch Institute who suggest that, without great care, increased production of gasohol could raise food prices and reduce food supplies. They counter that the process uses only the sartch in corn -- not in demand by third world nations -- and that the protein is recoverable in the gasohol-making process.