Sunday saw the New York Times publish Michael Fitzgerald’s story “Home Brew for the Car, Not the Beer Cup.”

Floyd S. Butterfield, left, and Thomas J. Quinn with the MicroFueler

If you missed it, although it did wash across the press and blog world with some notice, it’s an ethanol production unit about the size of a refrigerator or washer dryer stack unit. Due out in production and sales at the end of the year for a proposed $9,995 the press relations value is huge for them this week.

As an idea, this is great. Maybe a little much for most homes and driving families, it will surely find a home where fuel use is steady and higher than just a family with a car or two. Many businesses could get a big benefit. It very well could make quite a dent in the imported oil bill over time.

The rub is that fermenting ethanol and distilling it isn’t quite as simple as one might imagine. Home brewed beers and wine making is an art practiced by many to various results from wonderful to horrid failures. Moonshiners are effective in that they just make corn liquor, relying on sugar for the alcohol content and a lot of waiting and guessing that the cornstarch will change over to sugar and ferment too. Making the fermentable mash isn’t so tough, but getting it to work can be a mind bending exercise. Just ask that beer maker.

But these people behind E-Fuel Corporation are certainly serious men. Floyd S. Butterfield is for real in the small-scale ethanol world. Thomas J. Quinn is a master at bringing new ideas into mainstream use with solid experience behind him. For a basic start up this is as good of a “dream team” as one might hope for to start.

Skeptical as we might be, the practical value is high, it’s just that selling a self contained unit to make ethanol seems just a little past your average drivers skill set. But its not a skill that only a few could master, even though it might drive some a little crazy, most people could be trained to make good use of such a system.

Beyond the $10K one would need a cheap supply of high grade, non-contaminated sugar, electricity, water, preferably distilled water or water super cleaned of minerals. Then an operator would have to load the unit and wait. At some point, it will need cleaned and maintained. Just what is involved with that is yet to be revealed.

The team proposes to be using the membrane or filter technology that “filters” for the separation of the alcohol from the water rather than heating the whole mash volume to past the boiling point of the ethanol. If they have the details of implementing that worked out, they are truly on to something. A not very smart computer could run this thing with adequate sensors and measuring devices.

The concern is the cost of sugar. Sugar is already traded on the futures market and while its not a commodity that has “launched out of here” in price so far, sugar as we think of it in the U.S. isn’t terribly competitive with other feedstocks. Mr. Quinn suggests that he can source inedible sugar from Mexico for as low as $0.025 per pound. 12 pounds should get an operator a gallon of ethanol for a sugar cost of $0.30, something like 10% of the cost of a gallon of gasoline before taxes. However, can that price hold as demand grows?

The next concern is the issue of getting a permit or license to run such a thing. We’re talking about the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for a permit. Not your smiling, help out the consumer, kind of agency, just look at the application for being thoroughly put off.

These are just the observations that raise some basic questions that Mr. Fitzgerald didn’t know to ask or left out of the story. But it is a great idea. So lets speculate!

On the license front one might solve several problems by simply designing the unit to require a 15% gasoline load on board before operating, thus denaturing and bringing the end product into fuel use compliance. Add a dose of common sense from Congress and it might be practical.

The work of selling these things would need a supplier commitment for the sugar. There is quite an array of plants that can lock up sugar in various ways, but an issue exists in whether the machine can handle liquid or solid sugar or a combination of the two. This is much more of an interesting question. Most growing plants are going to deliver sugar in liquid form and plant sugars aren’t stable for long. Energy is necessary to dehydrate sugar to solid form, so stabilization or a cheap way to dehydrate would be a helpful part of the process.

This is surely one of the most interesting ideas to come from the run up in energy prices. It plays a solid role in carbon recycling and puts the end user much closer to the actual work of fueling machines, short circuiting the “vertical integration” of most energy supplies in use now. There are some serious questions left to be answered, but ethanol is a certain “can do it now” method of making a satisfactory fuel. Whether or not it really turns out to be practical for you or me to load 100 pounds of sugar to get 8 or so gallons of ethanol remains to be seen. Then what is one to do with with the leavings?

There doesn’t seem to be any “deal breaking” questions or problems that a cursory look reveals. The E-Fuel 100 MicroFueler looks like it can be made a solid participant in fuel production. In truth, it maybe only a first step, with much more to come when a large base of owner operators are “discovered” in the marketplace.


13 Comments so far

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