With gas prices all the rage these days I want to show some techniques for making your own fuel. In a previous post I showed how to make Homemade Biodiesel by processing vegetable oil with a small motor rig. In this post I’ll explore the other large scale commercial biofuel: Ethanol, and show why ethanol-based fuel is sadly inefficient and generally useless.
Ethanol fuel production is a two-step process. In Step 1 you produce a ~18% ABV alcohol mash from basic sugar. When this process is carried out on an industrial scale they typically use corn sugar (Canada, USA) or sugarcane (Brazil). In Step 2 you refine the mash into a high-strength ethanol base (generally 90%, or 180-proof) which you can then add to regular gasoline in flex-fuel vehicles. If you don’t have a flex-fuel vehicle you can even use it in a regular car engine, provided it is mixed with gasoline at a minimum 15:1 ratio. As of December 2010 the Canadian government has mandated that all fuel contain 5% ethanol by volume, so you’re actually already burning it.
Please note that homemade ethanol fuel production is illegal in Canada, the United States and most other countries. It requires the use of a distillation column which is prohibited by law almost everywhere. If you choose to follow these instructions the you do so at your own risk. Also it is important to point out that a) I do not own a distillation unit; all inferences herein to my ownership or use of a distillation column are entirely theoretical b) all pictures in this article are fake, they were digitally produced in Photoshop.
Part 1: The Mash
The ingredients are pretty simple. First we need a sugar to convert to alcohol. If we were making booze to drink we’d use something good like apple juice or honey or barley malt; however we’re making fuel, so we use the cheapest, strongest stuff possible. 4 Kg of table sugar. Buy this at Bulk Barn if you want to save $$$. Also, to maximize my yield I’m using Swedish Black Label 14-17% Turbo Yeast. You can buy this online, or just use EC-1118.
Mix the sugar in a stockpot with about a gallon of water. Boil this until all the sugar dissolves.
Pour this wretched mix into a sanitized carboy and add water until it reaches ~10L. Now use a hydrometer to measure the starting gravity. In my case the SG is 1.136, so potential alcohol somewhere around 18%.
The mash should be a sickly pale green color. Once it has cooled down to room temperature, pitch the turboyeast.
Over the next 7-10 days this mash will ferment into a wretched alcohol base. Use an airlock to seal the carboy and watch the activity, once the mash is ready it will stop bubbling.
During the fermentation process you’ll notice all kinds of strange activity in the carboy. For a couple of days in the middle it goes completely ghost white:
Once the mash is ready about 10 days later, it should be a translucent pale green color with a big pile of sediment at the bottom.
Using a hydrometer, measure the final gravity of the batch. In my case the FG is 1.092, the alcohol content of the mash is roughly 20% ABV.
Part 2: Reduction
Now it is time to use a distillation unit to reduce this mash into high-strength ethanol. Typically ethanol needs to be >90% ABV in order to burn in a car engine, as too much water in the mix can oxidize and cause engine trouble. 95% ABV is ideal.
Start by transferring the mash into a large cooking pot which forms the boiler for the distillation unit.
Clamp the lid onto the pot. Make sure that no vapor can escape.
Now attach the distillation column and hose onto the boiler.
Fill the condenser with ice and water such that it creates a cold pressure zone at the top of the column. This cold zone will push water vapor back down, such that we can extract almost pure ethanol in a single pass.
Now that the unit is set up and ready to go, fire up the stove! It will take some time for the mash to heat up to the desired temperature, but you will soon see distillate coming out the bottom of the worm tube.
The first 50 mL or so will contain highly toxic impurities (principally methanol) which very poisonous and also a poor fuel to burn in your vehicle engine. Best to pour this all away so that we are only burning pure fuel-grade ethanol.
Once you’ve poured away the methanol, start capturing fuel!
This particular batch yielded ~1.5L of 184-proof ethanol, which is pure enough to burn in a vehicle engine when blended with gasoline.
At some point here it will probably occur to you that you just spent ~$10 on groceries, several hundred dollars on equipment, one hour preparing the mash and another six hours running the distillation process. All this to produce one litre of fuel, which at current (October 2011) gas prices costs roughly $1.30 at the pump.
It may occur to you that you can obtain far better value from this fuel by simply consuming it and saving $60 on your next trip to the LCBO. Be advised that consumption of homemade spirits — however amazingly badass — is illegal and may potentially cause blindness or death due to methanol poisoning. If you decide to follow these instructions for purposes of moonshine consumption, you do so at your own risk. Note that you can greatly reduce this risk by ordering your equipment locally and shipping Canada Post (no couriers), keep a fire extinguisher nearby and be ruthless in pouring off those 50 mLs.