Friday, February 18, 2011

Brew Your Own Ethanol Fuel from Food scraps and Old Newspapers

If there’s one thing all Americans are good at, it’s producing waste: thirty million tons of it a year, in fact. From food scraps to old newspapers, a lot of compostable materials end up in the nation’s landfills. Thomas Quinn, the founder of Silicon Valley start-up E-Fuel wants to change all that.

The E-Fuel system uses two washing machine sized components: the MicroFusion Reactor (which to me conjures up images of Mr. Fusion from Back To The Future Part II) and the MicroFueler. The former reduces organic waste into sugar water and ferments it into a sugary, bacteria-ridden alcoholic soup not unlike bathtub homebrew.

The latter turns this soup into usable ethanol for automotive fuel. The whole process takes about 3 kWh of energy, or about a tenth of the average home’s daily energy usage. That’s less than the 4 to 7.5 kWh it takes to make a gallon of gasoline, at least according to Jacob Ward of the U.S. Department of Energy.

A third component called a GridBuster uses the ambient heat from a portable generator to fuel the whole compost to ethanol process. So good is it, in fact, that a claimed 80 to 90% of the E-Fuel’s power can come from this ambient heat alone.

Quinn sought the assistance of Floyd Butterfield, the inventor behind the legendary Butterfield Sill, to develop the E-Fuel system. Each of the three components are said to cost US$10,000 each, for a total cost of US$30,000 per complete unit.

E-Fuel’s mainstay clientele at the moment are universities and governments who, unlike the vast majority of consumers, are able to shell out copious amounts of money to save a little bit of the planet. In the words of “ethanol expert” David Blume:

“E-Fuel's machines aren't cheap, but for early adopters of new technology like this, I think cost really isn't the issue.”

Quinn hopes consumers will be able to lease the units from distributors, with some seventy already ready for immediate lease in both the U.S. and overseas. A lack of E85 compatible vehicles on the market may stunt E-Fuels growth, though apparently one can convert an E10 vehicle over to flex fuel with relative ease.

Quinn is expecting sales to double this year, though requires an investment of US$25 million to top up the company’s coffers and keep E-Fuel rolling. In his own words:

“In this economy, finding capital is impossible. Banks aren't taking any risks and we're facing a green tech bubble that's popping, because investors have dumped so much money into solar and wind and haven't seen returns.”

Only time will tell if E-Fuel is the way of the future or another woulda-coulda-shoulda in a long line of clever-if-financially-flawed enviro-tech.

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