Homemade ethanol guru Floyd S. Butterfield and Silicon Valley entrepreneur and innovator Thomas J. Quinn want to see you making ethanol in your backyard. Their creation, called the E-Fuel 100 MicroFueler, is a stacked washer-dryer sized reactor that can convert sugar into ethanol for (they claim) $1.00 per gallon.
Before you get too excited, please note that the unit is probably too expensive for your next block party, unless you’ve got an extra $9,995 lying around somewhere. Fortunately, state and Federal tax credits can halve this, but that still keeps it out of the price range of the average American.
How could making ethanol be so expensive? As Thomas Quinn quipped, this is “third-grade science. You just mix together water, sugar and yeast, and in a few hours, you start getting ethanol.” That’s not the hard part; what’s difficult is purifying ethanol to the degree that it can be mixed successfully with gasoline.
Ethanol has been made from yeast-fermentation of grain, fruits, and vegetables for thousands of years. Distillation, which gets around the 15% alcohol concentration limit that kills yeast, followed shortly thereafter. Adding ethanol to motor fuel takes things one step further. To mix properly with gasoline, ethanol must be anhydrous (containing no water) at 100% pure, or 200-proof. Homemade ethanol stills can easily produce 95% pure, or 190-proof, ethanol. But getting that last 5% of water out of the ethanol can require just as much energy as it did to get out the first 95%.
It could be the ingenuity of putting several thousand years of knowledge into one box makes the MicroFueler so costly. It can fill its own 35-gallon tank with E100 (100% ethanol) in about a week by fermenting the sugar, water and yeast internally, then separating out the water through a membrane filter.
Compared to homebrewing biodiesel, which can be done with less than $100 worth of equipment, making ethanol for motor fuel seems complicated and expensive. While sugar appears to be a cheap, ubiquitous resource, according to one expert it takes 10 to 14 pounds of sugar to make a gallon of ethanol. Right now, raw sugar sells in the United States for about 20 cents a pound.
Although the cost of each gallon of ethanol produced in the MicroFueler depends on the price of sugar, electricity, and water, Thomas Quinn maintains that it can be made for somewhere around $1 per gallon. The company is trying to make inedible sugar available from Mexico, which can be bought for as little as 2.5 cents per pound.
I like the idea, but this probably isn’t something that will go mainstream unless the price comes down. If you want more information about homebrewing ethanol, or plans to make your own still (which would be substantially cheaper), see these resources:
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Photo Credit: Popular Mechanics