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Lunar Power: Running on Moonshine

• May 20, 2008 • 6:22 PM

While industrial production of ethanol may not be the savior as it was once heralded, home distillers are willing to tap into a more parochial form of energy independence.

Rising gasoline prices affect people in different ways. Some are trading in their gas guzzlers for hybrids; others are acquainting themselves with mass transit; many are sighing as they swipe their credit cards and pump another 20 gallons; still others are dreaming of creating their own fuel.

And a few hearty souls are doing it.

Backyard production of ethanol is on the upswing.

Small-scale ethanol production made an initial comeback after the 1970s gasoline shortage. Today, with gas galloping to a national average of $4 a gallon, a new cadre of entrepreneurs has come out of the woods, including a Silicon Valley mogul who is marketing the sleek MicroFueler, an ethanol refinery system for home use.

The method used is not at all new — it’s as old as moonshine. Henry Ford’s first cars ran on alcohol and he predicted drivers would eventually come back to the fuel. Today’s backyard ethanol stills produce 180 to 200 proof alcohol that the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, requires be “denatured” to prevent human consumption.

Art Resnick, spokesperson for TTB, said the requests for small-scale ethanol stills are not new to the agency, but there has been a definite increase in the number issued in the last few years.

In 2004, the bureau issued 67 permits. The number increased to 202 permits in 2005 and to 586 in 2006. “We’ve had a dramatic increase, but it’s pretty much leveled off over the last six months,” he said. He wouldn’t speculate on the cause.
A Vancouver, British Columbia, woman who is selling plans and instructions for making the Charles 803, a system cited widely in Internet chat discussions, has a different story. Nanda Warren reports she is selling around 150 blueprints a month — about double what she sold at this time last year.

“There’s definitely a peak right now,” Warren said, although she suspects many people who buy the blueprints will not make a still. “I see people order the plans and they live in New York City. And I wonder, ‘Are you going to do it on your balcony?’ You do need to have a certain kind of set up to do it and you have to gather the materials, so it’s not cheap.”

Warren’s father, Robert, was an ethanol maker beginning in the late ’70s when he helped develop the 803. Robert died in 2004, leaving the blueprint, instructions and a Web site in Nanda’s hands.

Although her father could make a still in a weekend, Warren said it takes longer for those less experienced. “It costs $500 to $700, depending on where you can get the materials,” she said. Being handy with piping and mechanical processes is a given.
Warren doesn’t have a still herself. In fact, she doesn’t have a car. Living in a city, she said, she really doesn’t need one. In the future, she would like to be a part of an ethanol co-op, where neighbors supply feedstock and buy their fuel from the co-op.
David Blume, author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas: Fueling and Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century, envisions something similar. He said an individual could establish a small-scale operation and produce 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of ethanol “that would allow you to fuel 20 to 30 of your neighbors and make a good middle-class living.”

But others have bigger dreams.

Thomas J. Quinn, a man involved with several successful innovations — such as patenting the motion sensor technology in Nintendo’s Wii gaming system and marketing the nascent hard disk drive — sees his E-Fuel Corporation’s MicroFueler as being a game changer much like the personal computer.

Quinn said the MicroFueler is “much more exciting” for him than patenting the motion sensor technology for Wii. “This is a lifestyle. This is a national security issue,” he said.

Constructed in the form of a gas tank, the MicroFueler is about as large as a stackable washer-dryer. It was engineered by Floyd S. Butterfield, whose small-scale ethanol experience ranges back to 1982, when he won a California Department of Food and Agriculture contest for ethanol still design.

The MicroFueler makes ethanol out of sugar, water and a specially developed yeast. It can make about 35 gallons of ethanol a week using 350 to 480 pounds of any kind of sugar. In fact, Quinn has gathered leftover alcohol from bars and restaurants near where he lives to make ethanol. He said other feedstocks will work as well, such as sugar beets, corn and cellulistic (fiber-y) plants.

Of course, there are lots of obstacles to creating a world fueled by small-scale production units. Many ethanol experts point to problems of economy of scale, quality control and efficiency in home units. And then there’s feedstock — all ethanol-producing processes require huge amounts of feedstock, whether fresh corn or stale Krispy Kremes.

Many of those touting homemade brew skip quickly by the practicalities. For instance, obtaining 350 pounds of sugar a week, storing it and getting it into the MicroFueler will prove daunting for many.

Quinn said that can be solved by people hiring others to service their MicroFueler, much like they hire a house cleaner or a gardener.

Warren’s and Blume’s visions are a little closer to home — more agriculturally oriented — and involve the use of waste products that don’t require a lot of transport. Ethanol production has typically been tied to agricultural processes, not only because of the availability of feedstock but also because the waste product is often an excellent feed for livestock or can be used as a soil fertilizer.

Warren said she has learned the most efficient feedstocks for her father’s still have been sugar beets and Jerusalem artichokes. Blume notes that alcohol fuel can be made from many things, including stale doughnuts, grass clippings, even ocean kelp —whatever is available in large supply.

“People are really looking at this in the long term,” Warren said. “They’re saying ‘It’s not going to get any better. Let’s find a way to get out of spending so much at the gas pump.’ You have to give people credit that they really are looking for the solution to this problem.”

Like others interviewed, Quinn noted that sugar is a much more efficient stock than corn, which has been the feedstock of choice to date in the United States but has also resulted in shortages and increased food costs.

“Sugar has six to eight times the conversion rate of corn,” Quinn said, and is “plentiful on the planet.

“Sugar has been in a stagnant market for years,” he continued. “The world is filling up with sugar.” Although sugar off the shelf in the United States is about 20 cents a pound, there are many other sources. Quinn said he can buy inedible sugar from Mexico for as little as 2.5 cents a pound.

But what about the cost of transport? Quinn has an answer for that, too. He has patented a carbon trading system to assure low-cost sugar will be available to MicroFueler users.

With all this in place, Quinn maintains that the MicroFueler can deliver ethanol for as little as a dollar a gallon.
E-Corporation is taking orders for the $9,999 fueler now and plans delivery beginning in the fourth quarter of the year. With federal and state tax credits, Quinn said, the product could pay for itself in less than 18 months at today’s gas prices.

And while naysayers point to the problems associated with ethanol production and question the economics of it, Quinn points to Brazil — “a model for fresh clean air” since adapting an ethanol policy that has resulted in sugar cane powering much of the country. However, the Brazilian model is far from the small-scale refinery in every backyard Quinn envisions. It was engineered from the top down, with government tax incentives to large-scale sugar cane growers.

All of those interviewed for this story pointed to the environmental benefits of ethanol. Not only are it’s emissions nearly pollution free, it burns cooler with less vibration and the plants that are used to make it take the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide out of the air.

Of course, that ignores the damage that growing many of the feedstock plants can have on the environment, something ecologists increasingly are unwilling to do.

And, the obstacles to this sort of shift in such a fundamental and pervasive model as our country’s transportation system are formidable.

Quinn remains undaunted, saying that many people thought the hard disk drive was “a stupid idea.”

“If we don’t innovate a way out of this thing, we’re in serious trouble,” he said. “We either innovate at this point in history or we’re going to change as a country.”

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Joan Melcher
Joan Melcher is a freelance writer and editor living in Missoula, Montana. Her work ranges from travel magazine articles to stories on breaking research.

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