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Making fuel at home: Waste wine primes the pump

August 19, 2009 |  1:48 pm

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

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