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Microbrewing Fuel

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Microbrewing Fuel

Technology

Microbrewing Fuel

Microbrewing Fuel

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Silicon Valley entrepreneur Floyd Butterfield says his "MicroFueler" will turn ordinary people into bio-fuel home-brewers. He promises dollar-a-gallon ethanol made in washing machine-sized boxes. But Amy Standen reports from member station KQED that some critics say he's really brewing false optimism.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

More technology developments now, and this for everyone who doesn't like gas at four dollars a gallon. There is something that you can do, says one California company, grow your own. From San Francisco, Amy Standen reports.

AMY STANDEN: You almost need a Ph.D to keep to track of all the new, greener ways you can drive these days. But ethanol is the only alternative fuel that can be mixed in with gasoline in a regular combustion engine car. And now a California company called E-Fuel headed by Silicon Valley investor Tom Quinn says you can make it yourself for a dollar a gallon.

Mr. TOM QUINN (E-Fuel): What we have here is the microfueler. It has a hose and nozzle, just like you'd find at the gas station.

STANDEN: This microfueler runs about 10,000 or less, depending on available rebates. Quinn has his set up in the palm-tree-lined driveway of his Los Gatos mansion. It looks kind of like a large washer-dryer with a small LCD control panel and a switch on the front.

Mr. QUINN: It's so easy, it's like I call it third grade science.

STANDEN: Put in sugar, water, a little bit of yeast, and flip the switch. A couple of days later your ethanol is ready.

Mr. QUINN: Turn on it to pump. There's a pump key there, and you can hear the pump just starting up right now. And all we got to do is take this thing and put it up to the car and fill it up.

STANDEN: There's some debate over what percentage of ethanol a regular car can handle. Quinn says a 65 percent ethanol gas mix is fine, though California regulators say a much lower figure. So, this is a supplement, not a replacement for gas. Quinn drags the 50-foot hose over to my car, unscrews the gas lid and starts pumping.

Mr. QUINN: There you go. If you want, you just put your hand on it, smell it.

STANDEN: Smells like rubbing alcohol.

Mr. QUINN: That's right. It's alcohol. And it just went in your tank.

STANDEN: Unlike this stuff, most mass-market ethanol produced in the U.S. is made from corn. That's controversial because corn takes a lot of energy to grow and process. It also takes that corn out of food production which can drive up the prices of everything from tortillas to soft drinks. But the MicroFueler uses sugar which is easier to ferment than corn and is usually produced overseas. The MicroFueler requires a lot of it, about 13 pounds of sugar for every gallon of ethanol. So where do you get it?

Mr. QUINN: It's table sugar. You'd find it at Starbucks or your local store, but to buy it in quantities you want to go to a company called Sysco, S-Y-S-C-O.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

STANDEN: I decided to follow Quinn's suggestion.

Mr. MATHEW MOESBRUCK (Sugar Dealer, San Francisco): Hello, this is Mathew…

STANDEN: Sysco referred me to a San Francisco-based sugar dealer named, Mathew Moesbruck(ph).

Mr. MOESBRUCK: Uh. Uhm.

STANDEN: He was kind of stumped.

Mr. MOESBRUCK: We've never really done home deliveries. I'd have to get back to you on that. The best way to go about it for home delivery is Costco.

STANDEN: Moesbruck didn't want me to quote exact prices on the air, but he said raw turbinado sugar runs about 85 cents a pound. That would put a gallon of pure ethanol at 11 dollars, not including the cost of water, yeast or electricity, which makes regular gasoline look like a bargain.

Quinn says sugar prices are set to come way down, he thinks to about two cents a pound, thanks to a provision under the most recent farm bill. And he says a little detective work can turn up other sources like waste sugar from soda companies or other industries. But even then, how green is this MicroFueler ethanol? Dan Kammen, an energy expert at the University of California in Berkeley, says as with most things, the devil is in the details.

Prof. DANIEL KAMMEN (University of California-Berkeley): If you're sure that your sugar was waste sugar, that would be a good resource to use for making your own ethanol. But if your sugar is coming at the expense of either workers' rights in Brazil or the sugar producer who's producing it sustainably but is also buying new rainforest land and cutting that down, that is a very slippery slope to go down.

STANDEN: Which is why Kammen wonders if this whole do-it-yourself fuel thing is such a good idea in the first place.

Prof. KAMMEN: What we need to do is to set standards so that the big industrial producers are producing the most sustainable, the greenest fuels possible. And an effort to get everyone to do it in their own backyard is actually going to make this job much more complicated.

STANDEN: Quinn disagrees.

Mr. QUINN: If you continue to say look, I want to get the gas station to do it, you're part of the oil infrastructure. We'll never break it by doing it that way.

STANDEN: Quinn says his company has sold over a thousand MicroFuelers so far, and that's for a product that isn't even in stores yet. E-Fuel will start delivering its first ethanol machines this fall. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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