What were they drinking? Bad science in the Amazing Race

For some awful reason we have become regular viewers of that inane travel competition called The Amazing Race. In Episode 2 of Series 9 competitors have the option of climbing a waterfall or crushing sugar to make ethanol. The latter option involved passing sugar cane stalks through a manual press then distilling the resultant liquid to extract the ethanol and finally pour it into their Volkswagen Beetle. That what the show said, but I don’t believe it.

What was missing in the process of converting sugar cane to ethanol was fermentation. The juice of the sugar cane consists largely of sugar and water and would contain negligable, if any, quantities of alcohol. Hence, it would be impossible to distill ("boil off") what isn’t there in the first place. Distillation comes after fermentation, but fermentation is a slow process that certainly would not fit into the constraints of the show.

The contestants poured the results of their distillation into the fuel tank and then drove off, so we can probably say that this was actually ethanol – water in fuel tanks is not a good idea. Therefor, we must conclude that the either juice from the sugar cane squeezings was not the liquid used in the distillation process or that ethanol had been added to it prior to distillation.

Naughty, naughty. Then again, Jerry Bruckheimer is known for other productions of bad physics.

You can read more about ethanol fuel production, especially in Brazil, on Wikipedia.

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