E-Fuel, naturally, stands by its claims. Its chief executive, Thomas J. Quinn, a Silicon Valley executive who has bankrolled the company, says the $1-per-gallon proposition is realistic because it’s possible to obtain sugar for much less than 20 cents per pound. He explains that current U.S. farm legislation permits surplus sugar to be sold to ethanol manufacturers for 2 cents per pound, and that there’s plenty of cheap, 2.5-cents-per-pound Mexican sugar that could be imported tariff-free. He also emphasizes that the MicroFueler can use discarded beer, wine, fruit juices, and other alcoholic or fermentable liquids.
Quinn expects the MicroFueler to sell 200 000 units worldwide, and he’s already planning to market it in Brazil, China, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, he’s establishing a network of dealers to distribute feedstock and help users set up their operations. He’s also getting companies and governments to sponsor a carbon coupon program that lets customers buy discounted feedstock. ”MicroFueler customers are not burdened with locating their own sources of feedstock,” Quinn says. ”They just need to pump ethanol into their vehicles.”
Expert Call: "The backyard still reminds me of the lemonade stand I ran as a kid--a big moneymaker as long as I stole the sugar from our kitchen."
To be sure, the MicroFueler is a neat machine. Floyd Butterfield, the other cofounder of E-Fuel, designed it as a kind of cross between a gasoline pump and a washing machine that easily connects to standard home power and water supplies. You load sugar or other types of feedstock into the machine’s tank and press a button; the machine does the rest. It uses sensors and a microcontroller to dispense special yeast and maintain the temperature at ideal conditions for fermentation. Then, in the distillation phase, it uses a single solid-state filter rather than the multiple distillation columns found in conventional systems.
E-Fuel is rather secretive about how it forces the liquid through this membrane system. All it says is that the nanoscale pores let the water pass while holding back the larger alcohol molecules. The result is 99 percent ethanol, a much higher purity than conventional distillers obtain.
Day, of the Audubon Sugar Institute, remains skeptical. He argues that if the main feedstock is sugar, the economics remain shaky. The prospects of getting hold of cheap sugar in the coming years are far from certain. In fact, U.S. prices will likely go up, now that two major hurricanes have hit the country’s sugar-producing regions and high fuel costs have pushed many producers out of business. Prices also depend on politics—the subsidies and import limits negotiated between the government and the U.S. sugar industry. As for the cheap Mexican supply, Day says, ”Tell me where it is and I’ll go buy some.”
70 kilograms of sugar -- the feedstock for the ethanol needed to drive for one week
There are just too many economic variables: sugar prices, gasoline prices, government politics, Mexican supplies, and so on. Last summer, with gas reaching $4.11 a gallon in the United States, home distillation might almost have seemed worthwhile. But as of late November, prices were down to less than $2. The current global economic slowdown may help keep prices at those levels, while sugar prices may increase, making ethanol home brewing a sweet deal turned sour.
For more articles, go to Winners & Losers 2009 Special Report.
Snapshot: The 200-Proof Solution
Goal: To produce sugar-based ethanol at home for US $1 a gallon.
Why it’s a loser: The economics don’t add up when all costs are factored in; transporting sugar to people’s homes will burn lots of fossil fuel.
Who: E-Fuel Corp.
Where: Los Gatos, Calif.
Staff: Info not available
Budget: Info not available
When: Started shipping in late 2008