Gasohol trickling in, but it's no panacea; Advantages are there; big output is elusive

GAsohol -- 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethyl alcohl -- will make a con tribution to the nation's automotive fuel supply in the next 10 years. But don't expect it to take over the pump.

While gasohol is being produced and sold in many hundreds of filling stations in the Midwest and other scattered parts of the country, it is a very controversial topic these days.

Strongly pushing for much more gasohol to expand the nation's dwindling domestic fuel supply in the Carter administration, probably a majority of the US Congress, scores of state politicians, and thousands of politically influential farmers who see it as a potentially huge market for their corn and other farm produce.

Mild opposition to gasohol is coming from the auto and oil companies, many informed scientist, and some other groups. While not being seriously opposed to the fuel, they feel it will be largely ineffectual.

Wondering what it's about are the owners of 113 million cars and 29 million trucks in the United States who are desperately looking for anything that will extend their fuel supplies.

While the US Senate is consisdering a bill that would require that 10 percent alcohol be added to all gasoline, the country today only produces about 230,000 gallons of alcohol a day for all purposed. This is slightly more than 1/1,000th of the 210 million gallons of gasoline used each day by all motor vehicles in the US.

To produce 21 million gallons of ethanol a day for the 10 percent addition to the nation's daily diet of gasoline, it would be necessary to increase alcohol production by 100 times. This sounds like a huge potential market for the farmers and other suppliers of alcohol but an inadequete prospect for gasoline consumers. And that's about the size of it.

However, ethanol is like any other domestically produced fuel in that it performs the very important job of keeping the motorists' money in this country rather than sending it overseas and thereby further weakening the nation's balance-of-payments position.

Ethanol also has the advantage of being a renewable resource, since can be manufactured from corn, grain, sugar cane, sorghum, and numerous other farm products. On the other hand, a drought or other farm problem could drastically reduce the supply of ethanol some year, thereby hurting the nation's vital fuel supply.

The auto comapanies and some other organizations say that possibly the biggest plus for alcohol is that it might alert the American people to the dwindling fuel supply and persuade them to think realistically about alternative fuels.

A key and controversial question about gasohol is: Does it increase or reduce a car's mileage?

While admitting that ethanol only has about 63 percent as many Btu (British thermal units) as gasoline, the advocates of gasohol stoutly maintain that they get up to 5 percent better mileage.

But they're unable to explain this apparent contradiction, since the 10 percent alcohol should only provide a 6.3 percent contribution to the gallons of fuel. Methanol, the alcohol made from wood, Coal, or natural gas, has only half as many Btu as gasoline.

Contrary to the claims that gasohol provides increased mileage, the Environmental Protection Agency, General Motors, and the American Petroleum Institute have generally agreed that late-model cars running on gasohol will get from 1 to 3 percent less mileage than they will with straight gasoline.

Richard Lawrence, a program manager at EPA's Motor Vehicle Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., Says: "On an 11-car test fleet, which were all catalytic-equipped cars, we found a decrease in fuel economy of 1.6 percent. I have seen no data anywhere that shows an increase in fuel economy.

"Five papers at the International Symposium on Gasohol were all in agreement that fuel economy does decrease. But I don't consider that a major stumbling block (to alcohol use). It's just a little misleading to the sceintific community when we hear stories of 5 percent increases."

An important message for motorist contemplating the use of gasohol comes from Robert Stempel, general manager of GM's Pontiac division. He strongly recommends that motorists with pre-1975 cars not use gasohol. He said the various rubber and plastic parts in the fuel systems of these cars could be damaged by the alcohol.

Mr. Stempel addded that the alcohol could loosen up the sludge in some systems and eventually plug up the fuel fitlers. Precautions againts these problems were taken, starting with the 1975 models, which were generally equipped with catalytic converters.

Gasohol proponents also insist that it produces less pollution.But EPA's Lawrence also conducted emissions test with his 11-car fleemissions declined 33 percent with gasohol the hydrocarbons rose 18 percent when the evaporate emissions from the engine and fuel system were included (as the government does).

Emissions of oxides of nitrogen and the undesirable aldehyde emissions also increase slightly.

A significant drawback to adding ethanol is that it now costs about $1.50 a gallon, considerably more than gasoline does before the taxes and surcharges are added. In contrast, tax exemptions and some subsidies have been given to gasohol to stimulate its use.

An interesting and somewhat costly step in the production of most alcohol is the addition of about 5 percent gasoline to denaturize it. This allows avoidance of the current federal tax on potable alcohol and prevents people from actually drinking it.

One of the most serious charges against the blending of alcohol and gasoline is that it reportedly takes 1.2 gallons of gasoline to produce the corn or other agricultural products and for the actual alcohol distillation process.

But Marilyn Herman, chairman of the Alcohol Fuels and Policy Review Board of the Department of Energy, says that if advanced avialable commercial technology is used and oil or natural gas is not used for the distillation, there will be a net liquid fuel gain. Also, she said this energy equation must give credit to the numerous byproducts that are produced with the alcohol.

An important advantage of producing ethanol from corn is that the distillation process only removes the starch (a carbohydrate) from the corn, leaving, all the valuable protein in the corn and providing a better feed for livestock.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.