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Making fuel at home: Waste wine primes the pump

It sounds too good to be true: A residential system that allows people to make fuel from waste products  and use it to run their vehicles. That’s what inventors of the E-Fuel MicroFueler claim, and there's support for the idea in government, industry, technology and pop culture. MicroFueler buyers are eligible for a $5,000 tax credit. Former L.A. Laker Shaquille O'Neal is an investor in the company that distributes them.

The $10,000 E-Fuel MicroFueler consists of a 250-gallon holding tank for organic feedstock, such as waste wine and beer, and a still that converts it to 100% ethanol, or E-Fuel. The still doubles as a fuel pump, which works similarly to those at traditional gas stations. The only waste product is distilled water, which can flow down a drain or be used to irrigate plants.

"If we give everybody the ability to make their own fuel, you break the oil infrastructure," said MicroFueler inventor Tom Quinn, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who also developed the motion-control system for the Nintendo Wii gaming system, a version of which is used in his new micro refinery. "Three years ago, I looked at where the world was going and energy caught my eye. As a world, we had no replacement fuel for gasoline, and that led me to alternative fuels, such as ethanol."

The problem with ethanol at that time, Quinn said, was energy inefficiency -- not only in the carbon cost of growing, harvesting and transporting the corn that was used to make it but in the distillation process that turned it into usable fuel.

"In the U.S. alone, more than 100 billion gallons of organic fuel is thrown out," said Quinn, who reached out to ethanol scientist Floyd Butterfield to see if they could collaborate on a system that could convert cellulosic waste in a manner that was cost effective and better for the environment.

Although Quinn’s MicroFueler is most effective with wastes that are already high in alcohol content, ethanol "can be made out of any waste – lawn clippings, dairy products, old chemicals, cardboard, paper, bruised and discarded apples from the grocery store. It can be fermented and turned into fuel in minutes," said Quinn.

So far, only one MicroFueler is up and running. It was installed in late June at the Pacific Palisades home of Chris Ursitti, CEO of the green-technology firm GreenHouse, which is distributing the units and supplying the feedstock to those who install MicroFuelers at their homes.

"You just open up the hatch and pour in some waste and it turns it into fuel for the car," said Ursitti, who’s been using homemade ethanol to run his flex-fuel-converted Lexus hybrid SUV ever since.

GreenHouse has contracts with Karl Strauss Brewing Co., Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. and Sunny Delight to convert 29,000 tons of their liquid waste using MicroFuelers. A tanker truck picks up the company’s waste and delivers it to home-based MicroFuelers, which convert it to ethanol on site. MicroFueler owners are charged $2 per gallon once they pump out the fuel.

"What they need, we have. What we need, they have," said Karl Strauss CEO Chris Cramer, referring to his company’s symbiotic relationship with GreenHouse, for which no money is changing hands. Before entering into the feedstock pilot program with GreenHouse, Karl Strauss took care of its beer-brewing waste products by paying outside companies to destroy beer that had passed its product freshness date and farmers who fed the spent brewing grains to their pigs.

"Because we’re a fairly large craft brewer, there’s a lot of yeast, a lot of beer going around," said Cramer. "What we would like to do is any drops of beer that don’t go into a bottle, we’d like to make ethanol and fuel vehicles."

Converting expired beer and other liquid wastes into cellulosic ethanol takes minutes and uses 3 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce 1 gallon of fuel. GreenHouse says the fuel could then be used to power a "Gridbuster," aka generator, which produces 23 kilowatt hours of electricity per gallon.

Although ethanol has less fuel value than gasoline, it also creates 38% less carbon dioxide than gasoline when burned, according to Quinn. Ethanol made from organic waste material has the added benefit of being renewable. Mining and burning fossil fuels means taking carbon that has been buried in the ground and releasing it into the atmosphere. But the net emissions of waste-based, organic ethanol, or E-Fuel, are significantly less than non-renewables, such as petroleum.

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "has not been called upon to analyze the environmental impacts of [organic ethanol] in comparison to gasoline," said EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn, "using waste products derived from renewable sources intead of non-renewable inputs would likely lead to an overall smaller carbon footprint in comparison to a food-based feedstock."

Under U.S. law, it is legal to create up to 10,000 gallons of an alcohol fuel, such as ethanol, per year on one’s own property, though it is not legal to sell it to others. All that’s required is an alcohol fuel producer’s permit from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which issues the permits for free if producers meet the appropriate criteria – describing the premises where the alcohol will be produced, how it will be used, what type of security mechanisms are in place and guaranteeing that the alcohol will be denatured so it’s not drinkable.

The U.S. government, as part of its stimulus bill, is offering a $5,000 tax credit to homeowners who purchase MicroFuelers. Factoring in the federal rebate, an annual household fuel consumption of 2,080 gallons per year and a $2 charge per gallon, GreenHouse estimates the average consumer payback time is about two years.

-- Susan Carpenter

Comments () | Archives (25)

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I did not hear if any Efuel suppliers or feedstock suppliers are in Florida yet. I would think that the amount of bio available in Florida would make that state a natural for this Efuel concept. Are distributorships available?

This is a great new idea, however, how can someone during this economic downturn afford such device. Yes there is a stimulus package, but how will efuel provide for lower income families?

Can any car/ truck use this fuel or will I need to purchase a new vehicle?

Its really amazing. This will changes lives.
Thanks for an innovative idea.

"Although Quinn’s MicroFueler is most effective with wastes that are already high in alcohol content, ethanol "can be made out of any waste – lawn clippings, dairy products, old chemicals, cardboard, paper, bruised and discarded apples from the grocery store. It can be fermented and turned into fuel in minutes," said Quinn."

Is the Los Angeles Times being run by a rump group? Is anybody home?
Did anybody at the Los Angeles Times see the above quote, taken from the Microfueler story? Do you think it is possibly true?
Did Microfueler pay the Los Angeles Times to run this story? Buy some ads? What is up with this story, and the inability of the Los Angeles Times to run a retraction or correction?
Russ Stanton must be an extraordinary dimwit to have crap like this in his paper, and remain satisfied.

Katrina your right of course.

The E-100 system very well designed, supported, and financed. You guys doing a fine job bringing system approach on line with high quality. The ethanol molecule easy to control upon combustion for air quality. It's a clean burn with high octane. A better fuel for IC engines. Waste grey water best utilized at home. The stillage very desirable organic fertilizer for lawn. Don't dump it to drain.
Ethanol does lower mpg per my experience, but not much. You could air tires up 5 psi and recover. Per my trucks, cars, and small engines a good fuel. In summer I run E-85 in my '93 and '95.

Hi all. This is Tom Quinn, CEO of E-Fuel and the inventor of the MicroFueler. Apologies for joining the conversation late in the day. We welcome spirited debate and I invite anyone who has interest in alternative fuels to learn more about E-Fuel and come visit our headquarters in Paso Robles to see the MicroFueler in action. Please drop me a line at info[at]efuel[dot]com with “LA Times” in the subject line. In the meantime, I want to address some of the questions outlined in this chain and related blog posts.

• The MicroFueler uses organic waste as feedstock, some of which may contain alcohol. According to this study (, almost half of US food goes to waste. It was shocking to me when I first discovered it. By utilizing organic waste, we are recovering energy (carbohydrates) that would have otherwise been lost in landfills. This is not pseudoscience but rather an real abundant source of energy.

• It isn’t patently false to say this has anything to do with cellulosic ethanol. A quick search for the definition for Cellulosic Ethanol at says: ethanol produced from biomass of various kinds, including waste from urban, agricultural, and forestry sources; also called cellulose ethanol. Example: Cellulosic ethanol production substitutes biomass for fossil fuels.

• California consumes 20 billion gallons of fuel per year, which almost entirely comes from foreign oil sources.I estimate that this means the transfer of wealth outside the state (alone) exceeds $30 billion dollars annually.

• The national average gas price doesn't relate to what someone pays for fuel in Southern California. Fuel is currently over $3 dollars a gallon (in my neighborhood, 3.85 a gallon) and for most small businesses paying $2 a gallon for a cleaner fuel is a good decision from both an economical and environmental perspective.

• Water has been proven to up fuel's octane level which begets better fuel economy. DOE sponsored tests uncovered this point using 2006 standard Japanese and American vehicles, revealing fuel economies improved using 30% ethanol blends. E-Fuel's GridBuster generator engines can run a 100 proof blend of ethanol, which is 50%/50% water ethanol fuel. These 17:1 compression engines beat the fuel economy on any commercial available diesel or gasoline engine (you can't beat the price of using waste water as a fuel when it becomes a factor in your fuel economy calculations). High wet ethanol blends have also been a common practice for consumer vehicles in Brazil for 18 years (which are predominantly GM and Ford vehicles like we use in the USA) and used by US military aircraft during World War II.

• There are thousands of Americans every day filling up their flex fuel and some non-flex fuel cars with E85. Keep in mind although gasoline has more energy (relative to heat), it contains less octane power. If you ever asked yourself what the main purpose for your radiator is you would discover its purpose is to dispose of waste energy heat that the car engine can't utilize. Ethanol runs a lot cooler than gasoline and is part of the reason why some race car drivers don't use radiators in their vehicles. Cooler temperatures also extend the life of an engine because heat creates more mechanical stress.

• Since E-Fuel unveiled our prototype in 2008 we have begun to set up a nationwide dealer network. Having a local company in your neighborhood service your fuel needs is the most efficient method to dispense our technology and kick our dependence on fossil fuels. Greenhouse is one of our distributors. See website for more

"I am not sure why other than they have there own agenda..."

My agenda is to ensure that reporting on alternative energy is accurate to prevent taxpayer dollars from subsidizing bad ideas. We have seen an awful lot of that already, and it is largely because people exaggerated their technology and then a lot of people failed to do the proper due diligence in following up. See GreenFuel Technologies or Xethanol for just a couple (of many) examples of companies that made big promises, took money, and folded because their promises were hollow.

"Everything Carpenter wrote is 100% correct..."

No, Vickie, it isn't. Not even close. Has it ever occurred to you that some of us did go and look all throughout the FAQ prior to voicing an opinion? I certainly did. Further, one of the E-Fuel distributors has written to me to ask if he could reply on my blog (I said yes) and he acknowledged that there are many problems with this story. Look for his response in the next few days (as soon as I have time to format it).

Robert Rapier

From time to time, a truly revolutionary idea comes along that changes our way of life. The E-Fuel MicroFueler is such a product because of its potential to change the way Americans purchase fuel. It allows them to safely and affordably create and consume an alternative fuel on their own. GreenHouse eliminates the need for the distribution of fuel and the costly infrastructure. We are showing people how to create a sustainable future for their children, which is the responsibility of our generation. Our generation can’t continue to bury our heads in the sand for the next 30 years. It is our responsibility to develop options to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign suppliers. Yes, there will be naysayers along the way. They will ask: “Can you really make your own auto fuel from beer?” Yes, you can! The genie is out of the bottle and the oil companies won’t be able to push it back in.

Our company’s mission is to bring green technology to directly to our customers’ homes and businesses. We offer green building services and home improvement retrofit products that are eco-friendly, promote lower energy bills and reduce maintenance expenses. GreenHouse is the exclusive distributor of the MicroFueler in Southern California. With the launch of the first operational MicroFueler in Los Angeles, GreenHouse is making consumer use of E-Fuel 100 an option for people who want to gain control their gasoline costs and take active steps towards improving the environment.

The E-Fuel MicroFueler is the world’s first portable ethanol micro-refinery system. It replaces the traditional ethanol reflux column system with a solid state distillation technology, making it possible for homeowners and small businesses to safely and cost-effectively create their own fuel, on site. This is not rocket science. Henry Ford created the Model T to run on Ethanol. The system takes feedstock waste that would otherwise be discarded from breweries and wineries and easily converts this material into liquid ethanol. The E-Fuel MicroFueler looks like your typical gas pump, but it constantly communicates via wireless communications to Greenhouse to monitor the system. It is a microrefinery – or a 2010 version of a distillery, and is packaged in a way that is appealing to Americans.

When the E-Fuel MicroFueler senses your holding tank is running low on feedstock, GreenHouse will dispatch a pump truck to your home to replenish your holding tank. The main discard from the MicroFueler is distilled water….clean, drinkable, nutrient-rich H2O. The fuel creation process is done at a much lower temperature because it is based on low-heat distillation process. When compared to gasoline, and depending on the production method, ethanol releases less or even no greenhouse gases. It does, however, produce a reusable water product. Water.

GreenHouse has partnered with Southern California-based breweries like Karl Strauss and Gordon Biersch, as well as drink maker Sunny Delight, to convert 29,000 tons of liquid waste and spent beer yeast using the MicroFueler process. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is currently exploring a statewide pilot program that would utilize MicroFuelers for the California General Service Administration’s flex-fuel vehicles fleet.

We welcome any and all naysayayers to tour our plant in Paso Robles and our other local facilities, and to drive away with efuel in their tank. Also, please visit our website at

Honey, you are WAY out of your depth.
And Shaq is an investor? I guess they like 'em big and stupid.
This level of 'journalism' makes me ashamed to be an LA native.

This sounds terrific. Before we retired, my husband and I both commuted to work in downtown LA and Long Beach from our home in Cerritos, and tried to car pool and telecommute whenever we could. I support alternative fuel sources that save our air quality and, as a retiree, favor anything that will cost us less. What a terrific idea!

Why the negativity? I am doing all I can to reduce my water use and energy use at home, and reducing the cost and polution from using gas in my car every day. I like how this sounds and encourage this type of a solution to our many environmental and economic dilemmas. I live in a very rural area with our rescued animals, and like the idea of being self-sustaining.

I'm confident that the people who are distributing this fueling system have done their homework and urge others to look into new technologies instead of doing nothing to make things better.

In reply to Cannon...You only need a TTB permit and its free from the ATF and they have already vetted the MicroFueler as I am receiving my permit next week.
Federal law states you can produce up to 10,000 gallons of ethanol at your residence tax free thanks to Jimmy Carter. The MicroFueler has a 50 gallon fuel storage tank which is under the 55 gallon threshold for permit and the tank is D.O.T. approved

I am not sure why other than they have there own agenda people are not going to the FAQ sections of the Efuel Website to check the facts. Everything Carpenter wrote is 100% correct and the 2 developers of the MicroFueler are Tom Quinn who invented the controller that makes the Wii what it is and Floyd Butterfield one of the US top ethanol scientist. I have no doubt that two of our greatest scientist who got together solely to create something that can help people make a tangible difference in there energy usage expected this reaction from energy and oil company lobbyist. I saw this on the news when Governor Schwarzenegger announced it on the capitol steps with Linda Adams head of the EPA that they would be using it on the states fleet. I applaud Efuel100!!!! Anyone else who feels the same should no longer allow the only voice heard be one from the oil companies.

Its about time somebody came up with a sound plan to give those of us who want to make a change in our environment and our economy a chance to. The amount of liquid waste in the US is astounding and if we can even put a small dent in gasoline usage by using this waste to convert to fuel then we should. The produce where you consume model is genius and brings energy independence to the consumer.

This is really a high-tech and modernized version of the old moonshine still.

Making your own ethanol is illegal, unless you register and pay taxes to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF); and then denature the product (by adding gasoline) to make it unfit for human consumption.

Additionally, in California you'll also have to register with the BOE and pay road taxes on the fuel you produce; and while you are at it don’t forget to register your fuel tank with the local water quality control board, APCD, and fire department. You'll also need to file a hazardous storage material inventory report annually with the local fire department. You may discover storage of 100% ethanol triggers need for hazardous materials storage permits, as well as mandatory fire protection requirements.....

A home-grown "Bio-diesel" co-op in Ojai shutdown after only 1 day in business, when it was quickly discovered they had none of the necessary permits.

What you smelling is not stale beer but scent of fantasy at best, scam at worst. If there is sizable fuel to be made from old beer and wine, why don't they distill it at winery or the brewery? It can done with industrial distillation system that is much more efficient than a "micro" unit. Why spend good energy to trucking the old beer and wine to individual users?

It takes about 200 gallons of beer to distill 10 gallons of ethanol if you get 100% distillation efficiency. For which the end users pays $20 to MicroFueler and at least $4 to the electricity company. Considering ethanol has much lower heating value than gasoline per gallon, the $24 buys more fuel at your local gas station, without the investment and space at your house.

I am glad that I canceled LA Times long times ago.

The Los Angeles Times business page as laughing stock. Not pretty. Yeah sure, old leaves and clippings become ethanol right away. We waste so much beer that it rivals our fuel consumption.
Next we get a story about a proven system using divining rods to pick Wall Street winners, or find gold.
At a time when sickly newspapers are struggling to prove their worth, this story is like administering poison to a sick patient. Now, the next story I read in the L. A. Times? Truth, fiction, fantasy, hallucination? I want to pay to receive this?

The editor responsible for this story also deserves an "F", for letting this howler-filled article ever see the light of day.

I wonder if the LAT will even bother running a correction?

So much for the allegedly quality journalism Tim Rutten is defending:

Good Lord. Infomercial entertainment, complete with celeb photo . Here is a blog post where Robert Rapier points out a few flaws in this article/fairy tale:

This isn't journalism. This is fiction writing. I guess reality just isn't entertaining enough.

If this isn't a scam, then this is being perpetrated by people who haven't the foggiest notion over basic economics. It is also patently false to suggest that what they are doing has anything to do with cellulosic ethanol. Covered in detail on my blog:

The journalist gets an "F" on this story for failing to ask questions she should have asked.

Robert Rapier
R-Squared Energ Blog

I assume that what's left over you can use as compost, if you have the land for it. But has everybody forgotten that carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant?

There are a lot of holes in this story. Consider:

1. A brewery might have waste beer but no individuals would. Beer is 3-6% and wine 10-14% ethanol. With 100% recovery of ethanol (not likely), it would take 20 gallons of beer or 8 gallons of wine to make one gallon of ethanol. Only a brewery or winery has this much waste beer or wine. I like wine but it would take 80,000 bottles of wine to produce the 2,080 gallons of fuel a typical family supposedly uses each year. That isn't going to happen--a residential MicroFueler would need to ferment organic feedstocks. (Okay, there are some breweries around. Why is it more efficient to truck waste beer to my house instead of distilling it at the brewery? Breweries already know how to do this.)

2. The claim of no waste product except distilled water is false, as Pete Sandfort points out. There MUST be other byproducts.

3. The claim that "any waste... can be fermented and turned into fuel in minutes" is unlikely. The MicroFueler appears to use fermentation followed by distillation. Distillation doesn't take long but fermentation typically takes days or longer.

4. Most industrial processes are more efficient when scaled up. We already have central collection of garden waste. It seems very unlikely that there are advantages (from an engineering point of view) to have many small MicroFuelers instead of one large one.

5. Ethanol and water form an azeotrope, which means that simple distillation can only produce about 95% ethanol. Producing 100% ethanol is more complex, for example, using a third chemical as a solvent and a multi-step process. This is another argument for a industrial facilities.

6. Ethanol has about 2/3 the energy value of gasoline on a volume basis. Purely from an energy point of view, $2 per gallon for ethanol is equivalent to paying $3 for gasoline. Gasoline has to be above $3 per gallon for $2 ethanol to be price competitive. You can close the gap by increasing the compression ratio in an engine that uses 85% or 100% ethanol (ethanol has an octane of 116), but this is a major engine modification.

7. 100% ethanol can cause corrosion and problems in engines and fuel lines unless the engine is designed to run on ethanol. As before, you can retrofit a car but it isn't cheap.

8. Last I heard, 100% ethanol is not legal as an automobile fuel.

9. For a family to break even that uses 2,080 gallons of fuel per year and pays $5,000 for a MicroFueler (cost minus tax credit) plus $2 per gallon, gasoline would have to average $4.50 per gallon and the family's cars are converted to run on 100% ethanol at no cost.

10. Others have pointed out that the price of "good" organic feedstocks may go up. All the risk for increasing costs appear to be with MicroFueler. Are they really going to guarantee a $2 price for ethanol for the next few years, regardless of their costs?

11. Does the payback calculation include the cost of electricity? My marginal cost of electricity is 24 cents per kilowatt-hour, which adds $0.72 to the cost per gallon.

The business model depends on a $5,000 federal tax credit, avoiding fuel taxes (if ethanol were taxed like gasoline, that $2 price would be more like $2.50), avoiding any increase in raw material costs, ignoring the cost of electricity, ignoring the cost of converting cars to run on 100% ethanol, and getting the law changed to allow using 100% ethanol for cars.

It doesn't make sense technically or financially. Fermenting organic material to make fuel undoubtedly has a place, but it isn't my driveway.

"Converting expired beer and other liquid wastes into cellulosic ethanol takes minutes and uses 3 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce 1 gallon of fuel. GreenHouse says the fuel could then be used to power a "Gridbuster," aka generator, which produces 23 kilowatt hours of electricity per gallon."

So that leaves an excess of (23-3) = 20 kilowatt hours of electrical energy which I can then use to produce 20/3 = about 7 gallons more fuel, with which I can then produce some 7 x 23 = 160 kWhrs more electricity, and so on ad infinitum!

Isn't Susan Carpenter the former "Throttle Jockey" who writes test reviews if motorbikes? the LA Times needs to get better editorial reviewers with some basic scientific knowledge before printing stupid articles like this one .

Can we get them in Reno????? How do you "flex-fuel" convert your car? I've got a lovely SUV just waiting.

Things which sound too good to be true probably are!

Fermenting anything into ethanol will yield ethanol, water and "stillage". Claiming that you merely get water and ethanol just is plain wrong. In these tiny units, it may be OK to dump the waste down the drain, but commercial plants can't just dump stillage down a drain.

The rules of physics apply to these machines just like they do everywhere else. The cost of the feedstocks, the yields, and the required energy are certain to make the cost of the resulting ethanol more expensive than advertized.

Nevertheless, it is one more entertaining scam.


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