The gas grows greener

"Auto Fuel for 43 a Gallon!" read the advertisement. A misprint? I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Just that moring I had paid The ad was placed by a group called the American Home- grown Fuel Co. ("Teaching Fuel Independence Since 1979") and had a clever logo showing a gasoline nozzle coming out of a wheat sheaf and pumping fuel into a Volkswagen. "Learn how YOU," the ad continued "can easily, safely and inexpensively produce your own alcohol fuel that will run any car for as little as 43 cents a gallon."

Home-grown auto fuel? It all sounded suspicously organic. But the prospect of soon paying $2 a gallon at the neighborhood gas station was making this car owner desperate. I called for an appointment.

The American Homegrown Fuel Co. is headquartered in a second floor walk-up, wedged among the Victorian gingerbread houses on San Francisco's Haight Street. When I arrived, David Blume, the bearded young man who runs the company, was getting off the phone.

"Just had to schedule an extra class, we're filling up so quickly," said Blume. He returned to the kitchen where a batch of molasses and yeast was gurgling in a five-gallon glass bottle. The muddy solution would eventually find its way into Blume's gas tank.

In the last 10 days David Blume had received 430 calls about his auto fuel "cooking" classes. His first 75-person training session was filled in just three days, even before he began to advertise the $45, eight-hour class. In the next week Blume signed up another 100 students, who ran the gamut from outback ranchers from Gilroy to gray-flannel commuters from Sebastopol. A Tibetan monastery somewhere in California called and said they were sending a representative.

By June, Blume expects to be teaching 800 people a month how to build their own backyard distilleries and produce eight gallons an hour of pollution-free ethyl alcohol fuel which will power anything from a Cadillac to a tractor to a home furnace for about 43 cents a gallon. What's more, he claims, the 106 octane alcohol fuel (premium gasoline in only 92 octane) will give your car 10 percent more horsepower, double the life of its engine, and pass California's stringent smog regulations without one of those expensive pollution control devices which cut down mileage.

"People's first reaction is 'Hey, how can you run a car on alcohol?'" says Blume, who is now running a Ford Ranchero, a Mustang, two Chevy trucks and a moving van on alcohol. He can convert any car engine for less than $15 (for gaskets and carburetor jets) and a half-hour of work. Blume will soon be distributing an alcohol "conversion kit" developed by Chicago inventor Herbert Hansen, which he claims will boost mileage by 30 percent and enable any car to go from gasoline to alcohol and back at the flip of a switch. Blume says he will sell the mileage-boosting conversion kit plans for $25, the parts for $50, and will install the device for an additional $150.

"All the race cars in the Indy 500 run on alcohol. Heck, Hitler had a wood-burning car that ran on smoke. And when the Chinese couldn't get diesel oil after the revolution, they ran their tractors on soybean oil," says Blume. "You can run a car on just about anything!"

Anything? I contemplate the apple I am eating. "How far would this take me?" I impishly ask Blume.

"Hmmmm . . . a four ounce apple? . . ." He rolls his eyes to the ceiling as if snatching calculations from midair. Numbers begin tumbling from Blume's tongue. "A four-ounce apple would make a half-ounce of alcohol . . . which is 1 /256 of a gallon . . . which would get you about two blocks, depending, of course, on what you were driving." He flashes a smile of accomplishment.

Blume, of course, does not advise slicing apples into your gas tank. He is only making the point that any starchy substances -- be they cornstalks, leaves, grass cuttings, or potato peelings -- can be broken down into sugar, fermented into alcohol, and distilled into auto fuel.

The shortened recipe for molasses-derived alcohol, for instance, goes something like this: Pour 10 gallons of molasses into a 55-gallon oil drum. Add 40 gallons of tap water, an ounce of yeast, and three ounces of sulfuric acid (optional). Stir briskly and let stand for two to three days. Preheat distillery's firebox (unless you have a solar still) with waste wood or old crankcase oil. Pour in the fermented mash (now 10-18 percent alcohol). Bring to a boil. In 45 minutes, remove the 190-proof ethyl alcohol. Serves five to seven gallons or enough to power a Honda Civic from New York to Washington, DC.

Blume says his engineer is now doing the final testing on a device which would give alcohol-powered cars 25 percent better mileage than the same cars running on gasoline.

I didn't really invent anything," confesses Blume who learned about distilling alcohol fuel at Mother Earth News's Eco-Village in Henderson, North Carolina. "I just took state- of-the-art technology and put it into classroom form."

Alcohol fuel is as old as the internal combustion engine. Henry Ford designed his Model A in the late '20s to run on either gasoline or alcohol because, he reasoned, once drivers left the cities they were more likely to find a still than a gas station. During the Depression, farmers fired up their tractors with moonshine made in the backyard. During World War II, Rommel ran his desert tank corps, the Japanese flew their planes, the Americans propelled their torpedoes -- all on alcohol.

For years, New Zealand and the Philippines, countries without internal oil supplies, have used alcohol-powered vehicles manufactured by Studebaker, Chrysler, and International Harvester. some 250,000 alcohol-powered vehicles made by Ford, GM, and Volkswagen are currently used in Brazil, which intends to convert nearly 75 percent of its vehicles to alcohol and gasohol by 1985.

And now the idea is catching on in the United States, says Blume, where any American is capable of producing alcohol fuel for one-third the going rate of gasoline.

Some 30 community colleges, primarily in the Midwest, now offer training sessions, sponsored by the US Department of Energy. Vodka plants around the country are switching to alcohol fuel production. Texaco has 2,000 gas stations now selling gasahol (gasoline mixed with alcohol). Amoco and Mobil are about to jump on the bandwagon.

"Commercial alcohol plants are springing up throughout the Midwest," says Blume, "and I predict in the next year and a half we will see alcohol at the pump in farming communities."

Apparently the public is not willing to wait that long. In the last two years, about 1,000 "backyars stills" have gone into operation. During the last year alone the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabacco, and Firearms (ATF) received close to 6,000 applications for permits to build fuel-producing distilleries.

"Anyone who can post the $100 bond is granted a permit," says Mary Toki of ATF's Western Region office in San Francisco. (Since I last spoke with Toki, ATF has announced plans to eliminate the $100 bond. In California, the total licensing cost of a small still is now $6 for a state permit.) "With the fuel shortage we didn't want to be restrictive. Who knows? There may be a genius out there who can put this into a large-scale operation."

She adds, "We've been flooded with permit applications for the last year and a half, ever since that guy Crombie wrote the article in Mother Earth News."

"That guy" Mary Toki is referring to is Lance Crombie, a Minnesota microbiologist- turned-farmer. These days he is called the "father of the solar still."

About two years ago, Crombie built a solar distillery for about $20 and began producing alcohol fuel on his corn farm in Webster, Minnesota. The word got around and soon Crombie was visited by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which used to hunt down moonshiners during Prohibition. Crombie convinced them he was not producing liquor or trying to evade any tax on distilled spirits. Nevertheless they confiscated his four-by-eight foot solar panel still.

Hoping to hear the end of the Crombie story, I dial information for Minnesota.

"Lance Crombie, please, in Webster, Minnesota," I request.

"Mister," the operator replies, "I still don't know where Webster is. But Lance Crombie 's been getting so many phone calls these days I finally memorized his number."

"Yep," says Crombie, "my phone hasn't stopped ringing for two years, ever since I was raided." After the ATF "revenuers" ran off with his solar still, Crombie had another one built and in operation within a week. In the following four months he argued his case in ATF offices from Minnesota to Chicago and on to Washington. Apparently he made his point because the ATF eased its restrictions nationwide on permits for "experimental distilled spirits plants."

Crombie has since become somewhat of a folk hero in the alcohol fuel movement. His interview in Mother Earth News was reprinted in the Congressional Record. He has visited Washington five times, spoken to a dozen Congressmen, met with presidential aide Jack Watson at the White House, and recently testified before Senator McGovern's energy subcommittee of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

How did Crombie get started?

"I was raising 450 acres of corn," he says. "It cost me $2.50 a bushel to grow and I was getting only $2 a bushel on the market." Crombie found if he converted his corn into alcohol he could earn the equivalent of $5.50 a bushel.

Half of the corn grown in America is fed to cattle. When corn is processed for alcohol, the carbohydrates are removed, but the protein, minerals, and essential fats remain. The corn byproduct from the process is a concentrated cattle feed which fattens cows quicker than the actual corn. Thus, says Crombie , criticism that turning grain into alcohol fuel hurts the world food supply is misinformed.

Crombie has a patent pending on his solar still design but will give the plans and specifications to anyone who wants to build one. With his brother, Crombie formed the Chicago Solar Corporation in Faribault, Minnesota, which builds, among other things, inflatable solar collectors. Last year he sold over

Crombie is now building a fully automated 200-gallon a day distillery. "Alcohol is here to stay because it's a grass roots movement," he says. "The oil companies are fighting us all along the way because we're talking about eliminating 10 percent of their market. And there is nothing they can do about it because anyone can produce alcohol."

Oil companies with large coal reserves, like Mobil, have been experimenting for years with the conversion of coal into alcohol which they then turn into gasoline. So far the process has proven far too costly. "It takes four gallons of methyl alcohol to make 1 1/2 gallons of gasoline which is only 90 octane," says David Blume. "That's like using four pounds of steak to make a pound and a half of baloney.It just doesn't make sense."

Any energy scheme which relies on oil and coal is short- sighted, say alcohol proponents like Crombie and Blume. According to their calculations, the world has only 29 years of petroleum left.

"The United States, alone, has nine years of oil within its own borders and, at any one time, only one to two weeks of oil stockpiled. That is relatively short cut-off period. Just look what happened when Iran cut off only 5 percent of our supply," says Blume.

"If we produce alcohol, we're growing our own fuel and that strengthens the American dollar by cutting out oil imports and farm subsidies. As long as we are dependent on foreign oil, the United States will go to war when its supply is threatened.

"I'm still draftable, and fighting a war over oil in the Middle East is the silliest thing I've heard of," says Blume, who wears on his collar a button which reads: "Are you willing to die for Exxon?"

"Alcohol is limitless," says Blume. "It's basically liquid solar energy.It's our only road to peace and one of the highest ideals of my company is to keep world peace."

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