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Distributed biological manufacturing, here we come: making your own fuel

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
17th July 2008


Missed this article in the New York Times, which asks:

“WHAT if you could make fuel for your car in your backyard for less than you pay at the pump? Would you?”

The details:

the E-Fuel Corporation … soon will announce its home ethanol system, the E-Fuel 100 MicroFueler. It will be about as large as a stackable washer-dryer, sell for $9,995 and ship before year-end.

The net cost to consumers could drop by half after government incentives for alternate fuels, like tax credits, are applied.

The MicroFueler will use sugar as its main fuel source, or feedstock, along with a specially packaged time-release yeast the company has developed. Depending on the cost of sugar, plus water and electricity, the company says it could cost as little as a dollar a gallon to make ethanol. In fact, Mr. Quinn sometimes collects left-over alcohol from bars and restaurants in Los Gatos, Calif., where he lives, and turns it into ethanol; the only cost is for the electricity used in processing.

In general, he says, burning a gallon of ethanol made by his system will produce one-eighth the carbon of the same amount of gasoline.”

It’s possible importance:

Mr. Butterfield thinks that the MicroFueler is as much a game changer as the personal computer. He says that working with Mr. Quinn’s microelectronics experts — E-Fuel now employs 15 people — has led to breakthroughs that have cut the energy requirements of making ethanol in half. One such advance is a membrane distiller, which, Mr. Quinn says, uses extremely fine filters to separate water from alcohol at lower heat and in fewer steps than in conventional ethanol refining. Using sugar as a feedstock means that there is virtually no smell, and its water byproduct will be drinkable.

E-Fuel has bold plans: It intends to operate internationally from the start, with production of the MicroFueler in China and Britain as well as the United States. ”

Rob Carlson has the following expert commentary:

Regular readers will recall that I am not particularly enthusiastic about ethanol, but — assuming it is real — the Mircrofueler might be an interesting step forward because it ought to work for higher chain alcohols such as butanol. The physics is fairly straightforward: there is an increase in enthalpy from mixing alcohol and water, which is in principle the only energy you have to add back to the system to separate them. In practice, however, the only way to achieve this separation is to heat up the mixture, which requires considerably more energy because water has such a large specific heat. Any technology that helps reduce the energy cost of separating alcohol from water could substantially lower production costs.

E-Fuel might therefore have a way to help Amyris, or LS9, or even BP lower the costs of separating fuels from aqueous production mixtures, and to do so with a box that could sit in consumers’ garages. This raises all sorts of questions about where the bug comes from, whether for the purposes of cost those bugs are consumables, and where the revenue stream comes from in the long term. I suspect the answer, long term, is that the feedstock and the hardware are the only way to make money.”

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