Is it true that ethanol is a net energy loser, taking more energy to produce that it supplies?
Turns out, that’s probably not true, and is especially not true when a permaculture-designed agricultural system is used to produce the alcohol.
Sidebar: A new and exciting discovery reviewed on 1/6/19 by 60 minutes suggests an invention with potentially huge benefits to all of this — a technology for turning cellulose in trees (often in a permaculture system, e.g., forest) and other cellulose packed materials (practically every plant on the planet) into biofuels that can supply 30% of our energy needs with 70% less impact on the climate, all in a cost-effective way.
“In a designed system, especially a permaculturally-designed system, we could increase the biomass produced by an order of magnitude and in so doing supply all our needs in a much smaller footprint. For instance, you only get about 200 gallons per acre of alcohol fuel from corn, but 1000 gallons from sugar beets, 1200 from Jerusalem Artichokes, 1500 gallons from annual sugar cane in southern states and a variety of other crops which, when properly designed for climate, might yield 2500 gallons per year from two crop cycles. This would be done while increasing soil fertility and providing all the animal food we need as a by-product (replacing the corn which largely goes for animal feed now) at a fraction of the energy cost of corn-soybean agribusiness. This is all possible right now without any new technology.” – David Blume
For a tour of the various arguments, there is no better source than David Blume. Got only 2 minutes, here’s the short version. Want to check out the myths he busts, here you go. You’ll also discover his movie and his thick book, “Alcohol Can Be a Gas: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century” which is the most comprehensive available on the subject and sports a preface by Buckminster Fuller. He debunks all the popular myths about alcohol and convincingly argues, especially in his book, that when alcohol is grown in a permaculture system, it can:
- sequester more carbon than is released when burned (due to biomass that stays in the root system and the fact that the CO2 released is re-absorbed by the following year’s crop)
- produce less water vapor than burning gasoline (water vapor is actually an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2),
- produce as a manufacturing by-product dry distiller grains that are a better feed for animals
- be used in flex fuel vehicles now (EPA-certified conversion kits are available; diesel engines can also apparently be converted) or cars converted to run only on alcohol
Along the way, you’ll learn about the Whiskey Rebellion and the role of Rockefeller and Standard Oil in funding prohibition in order to eliminate alcohol as competition for gasoline, a dirty and relatively useless byproduct of oil refining at the time. You can also check out Blume’s company, Blume Distillation.
“If this is so great, why aren’t we already doing this?!” For a partial response, see this article, called “Free Shaving Cream for Life & Why You Haven’t Heard of It“. For a more complete response based on the science of Ethanol and Gasoline, there’s plenty in Blume’s book. Also, in terms of transportation, a Stanford study indicates that using biomass to produce electricity to power electric vehicles is more efficient than using that biomass to produce alcohol to power internal combustion engines.
Producing: Fill up at your own home brew pump
Blume’s book also covers everything you ever wanted to know about how to produce alcohol, although the legalities of doing so may vary by state. E-fuel is a company [note: as of 8/20/14, it is not clear how much of e-fuel is simply hype vs. real. We have left the text in place with this caveat b/c the vision is an interesting one regardless of whether it actually exists at this point or not. As of 11/20/18, there is no mention of the fuel systems pictured and discussed below; only a generator is offered now] that introduced a home ethanol production system ($40,000 less tax credits; patents). They also have a generator for $15,000 that runs on their ethanol and can be used to smartly power a home and produced electricity for 2.2 cents/kW. The company claims that 280 gallons of ethanol can be produced per week at a price of $1/gallon, a price based on the fact that it takes about 10-14 lbs of sugar to produce 1 gallon of ethanol (a batch of 35 gallons requires 500 lbs of sugar) and getting sugar for 2 cents/lb from companies like Sysco (but who knows its source and thus its impact on the environment; however, the machine can also use discarded alcohol, discarded sugar water from soft drink companies, and related sources). The unit uses about 150W of electricity per day. The company claims a return on investment time of 18 months, assuming a $3.69/gallon price for gasoline. The site is a nice one-stop shop for many related issues. Here’s a video covering the company and system. Near the end of this, more recent, video, the company’s founder introduces a prototype “MicroFusion Reactor” (press release) that he says will turn various food wastes into sugar water within 2 minutes, thus eliminating the need for fermentation processes. However, as of 10/2013, the MicroFusion Reactor is not listed on the company’s website and emails about this specific question resulted in the big silence. Thus, it seems plausible that (1) the “MicroFusion Reactor” is — and always was — a scam, and (2) that EFuel may not be reputable. Also, Fox News coverage features the CEO but also a guy from a company called greenhouseenergy.com or greenhouseintl.com (but neither website exists). Here is a video covering the company from the Los Angeles Times. On 10/7/13, I did receive an email communication from efuel saying that their next generation microFueler 300 series will begin selling in the first quarter of 2014. Furthermore, as of 10/7/17, there is nothing on the company’s website about the microFueler 300 series.
For a combustion-based, ethanol, mini-refinery, check out this video. And, a smaller unit. And, one that claims to be a continuous distillation setup for volumes of 1-2 gallons/hour. This next company is developing a membrane-based distillation process for ethanol that might be similar to e-fuel (video).
Producing: The Basics
The basic process of making alcohol is as follows:
(1) Get or extract sugar: Starches and cellulose + water + enzymes = “mash” = sugar wash
(2) Ferment sugar to make alcohol: Add yeast, organisms that eat sugar and output alcohol + C02, a process called fermentation. When fermentation is done, your mash may be 10-20% alcohol by volume. Beer, wine, and cider are not distilled. Automated fermentation thermostat.
(3) Distillation, separating the alcohol from the water: Distilling this mash is the process of separating the alcohol from the water, producing higher concentrations of alcohol by volume. So-called “hard alcohols” (e.g., whiskey, vodka, gin, etc.) have higher concentrations of alcohol because they are distilled. There are 2 ways to distill alcohol: (a) By heating it up in a traditional still; (b) Through non-combustible membrane distillation (journal articles). It’s interesting to note that the E-fuel machine mentioned above uses nano filters to separate the alcohol from the water instead of a combustion-based distillation method. Air gap membrane distillation (AGMD) has been researched to distill alcohol. Another article on membrane distillation. Membranes for biofuel separation.
(4) For legal reasons, poison the alcohol so it is not potable. This is denatured alcohol.
(5) Extra products: The mash without the liquid is the remaining plant material not converted into sugars. These distiller grains can be used for a high quality animal feed. CO2 is another product that can be used.
Blume makes a convincing case for alcohol as a transportation fuel. What about using alcohol for heating a home?
This source suggests it is not appropriate, but that may be due to unnecessary assumptions related to how it is produced. This online discussion focuses more on the economics of using ethanol which may be accurate for conventional ethanol sources but probably not accurate when using permaculture as a production method (as inferred from David Blume material). However, most people will not be producing their own fuel so a conventional approach is still important. There are tons of places to get different alcohol burners and fireplaces. But, here, I randomly focused on one site, Ecosmart fire, to calculate some costs (but what about using e-fuel’s MicroFueler to make you own?). The XL500 burner gives 5 hours of burn time for 5 liters of fuel, producing 11,430 BTU/hour. Cost of fuel is reduced for larger quantities. On this site, as of 9/25/13, a pallet of fuel is 160 gallons (160 x 3.79 = 606.4 litres) = $1600 + $219 (SH to Madison, WI) + $0 (no tax to WI) = $1819. So, $11.37 per gallon (compared to producing your own at <=$3/gallon) or $3.00 per litre. So, this XL500 burner, would cost $15.00 to fill up the unit, costing $3/hour or 3810 BTU/$. The XL900 burner produces 19,163 BTU, 645 square feet coverage, burn time of 10 hours (consumption = 1 litre/hour) about $3/hour. BK5 burners are adjustable and cost $1-1.50 per hour. The 1800SS, a 6 ft firebox with 3 BK5 burners, produces 36,000 BTU. Here are more details about these and other units from Ecosmart. I found some university calculators that compare the heating cost/BTU of many different fuel sources, but not alcohol. I asked, “Ask an Expert” about this and Frank Wideman responded by comparing alcohol with kerosene (which is on many of the calculators):
“In general, ethanol has the energy value of about 83,000 BTU’s per gallon. That compares to the 135,000 BTU’s for kerosene. That means that the ethanol should be bought for 60% to 65% of the cost of kerosene if the use efficiency is the same. Many of the kerosene appliances have burning efficiency of 80%. That means we can get about 108,000 BTU’s of heat into our home from that gallon of kerosene. Fireplace efficiency can be much lower. If the ethanol burning appliance (fireplace) has an efficiency of 40%, then we would need to buy 2.5 gallons of ethanol to get the same heat into our home as the 1 gallon of kerosene. So if the kerosene costs $4.40 per gallon, we could only pay $1.76 for the ethanol and have the same cost per BTU
Ethanol as an energy source for home heating is seldom discussed, because of the small number of appliances available to use the fuel in home heating. Safety is also a concern. Ethanol burns so cleanly that you cannot see the flames and the fuel resembles water in many ways. Other volatile fuels used in home heating have colors and smells added to improve detection of leaks and other hazards.”
One thing to keep in mind is that ethanol fireplaces can be ventless so all the heat stays in the house as compared to wood (or others) where some of the heat is lost up the chimney. Charts like this one compare the actual cost per million BTUs of different fuels, correcting for efficiencies like chimneys or lack of chimneys, but often don’t include ethanol in the mix. This site at Penn State also provides a comparison, but alas, also does not include ethanol. There are many other appliances (see also 1, 2, 3) that use ethanol and purportedly burn clean and do not need venting. Clearly, it is necessary to combine burning units to achieve BTU outputs that even approach a wood stove’s heat output. The 1800SS described above is that company’s largest unit and “only” outputs 36,000 BTU, for example.
What about storing this quantify of fuel? It’s “like storing bottles of rum.”
My tentative conclusion is that using ethanol to heat a home is expensive unless one has a way of producing or acquiring cheap (and clean) ethanol. In any case, it would require multiple units to heat a home (unlike a wood stove, for example). On the other hand, if you like the modern look and only want a cozy central fire for ambiance, perhaps ethanol would work.
Alcohol-based stoves are used on boats. They work and here are some examples. This article focusing on the differences between cooking on a boat versus cooking at home is notable for what it does NOT include, namely instructions about how to change cooking because you are cooking with alcohol. This seems to imply that the process is similar and that having an alcohol-based stove and oven at home would be similar to existing natural gas models. Alcohol stoves have been a favorite for light-weight backpackers for a long time because the stoves are light, cheap, you can make them yourself from soda cans (example), and the fuel is readily available. If you use stoves with wicks (example), they will do fine in winter cold as well. Zen stoves is a good site for all things DIY for alcohol stoves. Fancy Feast can stoves (pictured to the right) are wicking stoves that also act as their own pot stand (see this review, for example). The inventor of the Fancy Feast stove talks about his favorite alcohol stoves. One of the weaknesses of the Fancy Feast can is that it has no simmer control…however, check out these DIY simmer control rings (one idea, Hiram Cook’s idea #1 and idea #2). There are different wicking material possibilities, including paper towel, for those who balk at the $15 price for a 12″ x 12″ square of carbon felt.
Drinking: Fuel for the Body and Soul
A discussion on alcohol wouldn’t be complete without a conversation about enjoying it as a beverage. Although laws often require producers to add poison to the alcohol to make it non-drinkable, denatured alcohol, there are many ways to enjoy the non-poisoned version. A fantastic cyder to try and support (b/c it’s made by Mark Shepard at his permaculture farm in Viola, WI), is Shepard Cyder, made in three types.
I also couldn’t resist posting links for some new espresso-style machines for automating home beer brewing. The most mature offering (you can pre-order and there is a forum with a recipe library) is made by PicoBrew (offered for $2000 as of 5/2015; here’s a Seattle Times article), a modern evolution perhaps of the Bruameister by Speidel ($2000). As of 10/2017, the model C is available for pre-order at $469. Purportedly, the PicoBrew takes about an hour of your time, 3.5 hours of machine time, a week of fermenting, and you get about 2.5 gallons of beer. Recipes are shared via the internet and apparently can be reliably duplicated. There’s another machine that produces 5 gallons of beer, called the BrewBot ($3595 with taxes and shipping as of 8/2014) that interfaces with a smart phone for recipes and to prompt you when to add your ingredients (thus perhaps less a start-it-and-leave-it process than the PicoBrew, which can be considered a good thing if you want more influence and involvement with the process of brewing your beer). It was successfully funded on kickstarter in October, 2013 and is still in the process of manufacturing and shipping those pre-orders (as of 8/2014).
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