It is not quite a boom yet, but the concept of operating machinery and vehicles on denatured alcohol -- either alone or mixed with gasoline to produce gasohol -- is quickly gaining popularity in this region.
On Maryland's Eastern Shore and in the southern part of the state, groups of farmers, inspired by a vision of economic self-sufficiency, are meeting and setting up corporations to operate fuel alcohol stills.
In Baltimore, brewing company officials are said to be negotiating with several ventrues about making fuel alcohol in a closed Carling's brewery.
In St. Mary's County, the county commissiners have hired two 18-year-olds to design a still that would produce alcohol to heat the county office building.
The A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fairfax County has announced plans to produce alcohol for gasohol along with its traditional product, Virginia Gentleman Bourbon.
Budget Rent-A-Car has begun using gasohol for its rental cars in Washington.
The interest in fuel alcohol, particularly gasohol, has become more intense with every report of gasoline lines and gasoline price increases. Along with reducing the dependence on oil, gasohol has the advantage of decreasing tailpipe exhaust emissions of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, according to tests conducted by the federal government.
Gasohol still has many detractors, who argue that it takes more energy to produce than is saved by its use. But the popularity of fuel alcohol is increasing every month, particularly among farmers, who are building stills out by their barns.
In Maryland so far, there is only one fuel alcohol still in operation. It is run by James Clark Jr., the Maryland Senate president, who owns a feed-corn farm in Howard County. But scores of such stills are in the planning stages.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms enforcement division in Philadelphia has received 66 applications this year from people -- mostly farmers -- seeking to run experimental stills to produce fuel alcohol. "It's increasing as the months go by," said an offical.
Twenty of those applications have been granted, as have six of nine applications from Virginia.
The Maryland state comptroller's officer, which also must approve applications for stills, has issued 9,000 copies of "Home Grown Fuel -- What You Should Know", a guide through the red tape involved in getting stills approved. The agriculture department also has sponsored a meeting with grain farmers at which the topic was how they might turn produce into fuel for their tractors, trucks and combines.
Gasohol has been available in Maryland since May and is sold at 22 service stations throughout the state. Most of those are on the Eastern Shore, where much of the state's grain is produced.
Fuel alcohol differs from drinking alcohol in that it is denatured -- combined with an additive that makes it undrinkable. It is particularly attractive to farmers who have the ingredients on hand and who can use the soggy residue from the distilled grain for livestock feed.
"If you could buy a still the same way you can buy a John Deere combine, I would have had one months ago." said Salisbury farmer Bill Twilley, a proselytizer on behalf of fuel alcohol. Twilley said he is involved with several groups of farmers who are investigating building stills in locations including Berlin and Preston on the Eastern Shore.
To the farmers, the allure of fuel alcohol is that it promotes self-sufficiency.
"If you want to be energy self-sufficient, that's quite a feat in itself," said Twilley. "The farmer used to feed a mule and be self-sufficient, then he got dependent on the oil merchants," he said. "I'm just a plain dirt farmer, but I believe in being self-sufficient."
"It makes them independent, and that's very important," said Clark, who predicted growing use of fuel alcohol by farmers. "It gives them a lot of self-assurance to know they can make the fuel if they want to."
Clark fired up his still for the first time Oct. 6, producing a batch of alcohol only about 60 proof and too weak to use. "I've got to make an addition to my still, which I think will take care of it." he said. Clark and several friends built the still after leafing through a book on how to build one.
In St. Mary's County, Dan Dawson and Henry Leskinen, freshmen at St. Mary's College, have been hired by the county commissioners to prepare a feasibility study for a county-operated still. With a third friend, Bill Linsley, the two built demonstration stills for the county during the summer.
It all began at a June meeting of the Tri-County Council, a regional planning agency. "The county commissioners joked about gearing up what used to be a substantial illegal alcohol producing industry," said Steve Mayer, of the council. Out of that discussion came plans for a county-sponsored seminar on fuel alcohol and the demonstration stills.
Later the county hired Dawson and Leskinen, who drew up preliminary plans for a still housed in its own building in Leonardtown, Md.