LOS ANGELES - "It's so easy, even an actor can do it," quipped Daryl Hannah as fellow thespian and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. installed an alcohol-fuel conversion kit in his Toyota Prius.
----------The contraption, which costs $367 for a four-cylinder engine and is about the size of a Walkman (remember those?), essentially reprogrammed the computer in Begley's 2001 Prius so that the hybrid car could efficiently use ethanol - a form of alcohol - in addition to unleaded gasoline.
Ethanol proponent David Blume and actress Daryl Hannah look on as Actor Ed Begley Jr., adds a bi-fuel conversion kit to his 2001 Prius.
Installation time? Less than 10 minutes - if you don't have on older car, like Hannah's Trans Am, which required a whole new fuel injection system before it could be converted.
The demonstration at the Peterson Automotive Museum was the centerpiece of an event hosted by the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture (IIEA), led by Begley, Hannah and author and IIEA executive director David Blume, who sells the conversion kits on his Web site.
Blume, who wrote the first version of his book "Alcohol Can Be a Gas!" in 1983, has for decades been preaching the virtues of alcohol as a cheaper, more widely available, less-polluting alternative fuel to gasoline.
Ethanol isn't universally attractive, though.
Many environmentalists, academic researchers, economists and even some auto industry analysts have been critical of the proliferation of flex-fuel vehicles, saying the perceived demand for ethanol to fuel them contributed to a spike in corn prices that has exacerbated worldwide shortages of many grain-based foods. The price of corn - the major ethanol feedstock in the U.S. - quadrupled between mid-2005 and mid-2008.
Blume, likemany ethanol backers, dismisses such criticisms, saying that the U.S. corn surplus has risen about 25% to 2 billion bushels over the past two years while corn prices fell about 50% in the past year.
But if you don't like corn as a feedstock (we don't), he adds, materials ranging from kelp to uneaten doughnuts can also be easily processed into alcohol fuel.
It's actually not so easy - alcohol from waste and from woody non-food plants and the inedible parts of food plants such as corn and sugar cane (the principal ethanol feedstock in Brazil) - is more costly and chemically difficult to produce.
That's why the first commercial refineries of so-called cellulosic ethanol (made from cellulose) won't be on line in the U.S. until 2011 or so, and then will produce only a small part of the non-corn ethanol needed to replace significant quantities of gasoline.
Blume wants to speed things up, with the U.S. adopting alcohol fuels at a rate rivaling Brazil, where almost all cars and trucks run on ethanol and imports of petroleum and refined gasoline have all but disappeared.
With the growing number of U.S. cars manufactured to process both unleaded gas and 85% ethanol fuel, the availability of conversion kits such as the one he sells and what he predicts will be a growing number of alcohol fueling stations in the U.S, Blume thinks we're on the way.
More than 80 models of passenger and work vehicles sold in the U.S. for the 2009 model year are flex-fuel vehicles, that can run on either unleaded gasoline or 85% ethanol fuel, according to the federal Energy Department. A Senate bill introduced earlier this year would require all new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be fuel-flexible by 2017.
For those without a flex-fuel car, though, Blume pitches the do-it-yourself conversion kit as a cost-effective way to take advantage of alcohol fuel prices that are about 60 cents a gallon cheaper than unleaded fuel in California (when it can be found) and more than $1 cheaper than unleaded gas in the Midwest.
He claimed - despite reports to the contrary from automakers and test labs - that ethanol isn't corrosive and that cars converted to run on the stuff, either pure ethanol or blended with gasoline, don't need new fuel lines, fuel tanks or other equipment alterations. That's true of most newer cars, but older models can have problems with ethanol in fuel systems that haven't been updated.
There are about 2,000 E-85 fueling stations nationally, but they are clustered in the cornbelt.
California, one of the largest car markets and car cultures in the nation, has fewer than 40, with only a handful in car-packed Southern California, but Blume said Pearson Fuels, builder of the state's first E-85 station, is set to build about 50 more over the next year.
"Half the cars in this country ran on alcohol on the first day of Prohibition," but the anti-liquor law killed the burgeoning alcohol fuel industry, Blume said, adding that do-it-yourself types now can build their own alcohol distilling system (right) for about $2,000. "It already has been done all over the world, and it's beginning to be done again."
Questioned after the event about how easy it is to begin brewing fuel at home, Blume said a federal permit is required to set up a home still for making alcohol-based fuel, and the installation needs to be approved by local building code authorities.
He said, however, that home brewers can get a 55-cents per gallon federal subsidy if they really use the stuff for fuel and not for cocktails.
His pitch for ethanol was powerful enough to give Begley, whose 2001 Prius has almost 160,000 miles on it, and Hannah, who owns the classic Pontiac Trans Am she drove in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies, reason to add the conversion kits to their cars.
Begley's conversion of a modern engine was fairly simple, but Hannah's 1980 muscle car required that a fuel-injection system be substituted for what had been a carbureted fuel system before the kit was added - a costly item.
Still, she can afford it and said she's now "really excited that my car can run on alcohol and drive in a straight line. It's not like I can do the same."
Check out the Energy Department's regularly updated list of E85 stations here, and see which cars are ethanol-capable here