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Do It Yourself! Build a Small-Scale Ethanol Fuel Plant

Find out what it takes to build an ethanol fuel plant, including sourcing feedstock.

| May 9, 2013

  • "Alcohol Fuel: A Guide to Making and Using Ethanol as a Renewable Fuel" by Richard Freudenberger is a practical, grassroots guide that gives readers all the information they need for making and using ethanol for fuel.
    Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
  • A farm-scale ethanol fuel plant requires a commitment to time and equipment. These fermentation vats work on a continuous basis.
    Photo Courtesy Painterland Farms
  • Sample yields of 190 proof alcohol from different types of crops
    Illustration Courtesy New Society Publishers

The search for alternative fuel sources has led to the development of ethanol, a gasoline substitute, but large-scale production of corn-based ethanol is controversial and it threatens the world's food supply. In Alcohol Fuel: A Guide to Small-Scale Ethanol (New Society Publishing, 2009), Richard Freudenberger gives readers all the information they need create a small-scale ethanol plant. In this excerpt from Chapter 4, he covers all the production aspects a would-be alcohol producer needs to consider.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Alcohol Fuel.

Ideally, your ethanol plant would be part of a farm or market-growing venture, for two reasons. First, as a grower you’d already have a familiarity with the day-to-day practices that agriculture entails. This includes working within a routine, searching for markets, dealing with equipment in both fair and inclement weather, and quite importantly, improvising when necessary to keep things running smoothly. As anyone who has worked the land can tell you, the most successful farmers are well-rounded Renaissance people who can roll with the punches and take things in stride.

Second, a working farm provides a ready-made outlet for the manufactured fuel and its by-products. Most any internal-combustion engine or heating appliances can be adapted to run on alcohol — this inventory includes tractors, trucks, pumps, generators, burners and furnaces — and the residual material from mash production contains enough nutrient to supplement normal livestock feed.

If agriculture is not in your background, it’s still possible to manufacture alcohol, even economically, provided you have a reliable source of raw material, or feedstock. There are many viable candidates for ethanol production, including both sugar and starch crops. Residues from canning and juicing operations, even far from the farm, are also distinct possibilities. Realistically, it would be difficult to carry on much more than an experimental venture in a confined space such a suburban backyard, but it’s still possible. Ideally, a rural setting or a location where there’s room to expand and function without interference would be the better choice.

Sourcing Raw Materials

Finding a reliable and consistent source for feedstock material can be a real challenge. Chapter 5 will address the distinction between sugar crops such as cane, sugar beets and fruit juices and starch-based crops such as corn, sorghum, grains and potatoes. (Visit our online store to buy the entire book.) For now, it’s enough to say that certain plants produce more starch or sugar per ton or per acre than others, and given the right cost, crops with more concentrated nutrients are the best choice.

To complicate matters, though, is the fact that the equipment needed to process the raw material varies by crop. Grain-grinding machinery is quite a bit different from the extractive equipment used to process sugar beets. Unless you can cultivate a reliable source of feedstock, it would be unwise to invest in any specific equipment. Consider, instead, renting (or leasing) that equipment if possible, or look into using the services of a local co-op.

If you live in a rural community where processing and packing houses exist, you may find that reclaiming surplus and spoilage from these operations makes the best economic sense. Approached properly, most cooperatives and private processing facilities should be willing to negotiate an attractive arrangement — a deal, if you will — that would allow you to test the value of their spoilage as a feedstock, subject to performance results over a specific period of time.

Too, you can always try making arrangements with individual farmers, perhaps in exchange for culling waste from fields and orchards, which will provide you with the needed feedstock material, at least on a temporary basis while you establish its feasibility.

Storage can be an issue with certain crops. Some products should be processed within a few months of harvest, and if they are not, they need to be dried sufficiently to store. Drying and storage come at additional cost, and are best both avoided. You will, of course, have to make some provision for containing your feedstock on a day-to-day basis to keep the operation running smoothly, especially if you plan to operate the still in batches rather than on a continuous basis.

Buy It or Build It?

For the small-scale fuel producer, many still designs are so basic that it’s much simpler and far less expensive to build the equipment rather than to buy it. This is especially true of small-capacity operations. Costly stainless steel components aren’t needed at this scale — ordinary mild steel pipe will do for the columns and water lines, and in some applications plastic piping can be used. Likewise, tanks and vats need not be anything special, but for those elements, it’s often cheaper to just buy used equipment at a farm auction (stainless steel dairy storage and processor tanks are common auction items).

If you have welding skills and a place to work, you’re way ahead of the game. For the kind of components involved, there’s no real reason to use new materials. Any salvage or metal scrap yard is likely to produce the sort of parts you’ll need. If you’re not fussy, an old oil tank can make a decent boiler vat, and similar liquid storage containers can be adapted to serve as agitated mash cookers. Many components are make-do items from other applications, so you’ll have to use a creative eye when shopping for good candidates. Unfortunately, many manufactured steel items — particularly stainless steel — have increased in value in the pre-owned marketplace because there is an increased foreign market for quality steel salvage in general and for well-made American products in particular, especially among developing nations. The plumbing parts are for the most part standard off-the-shelf items.

Paying for the services of a professional welder will increase the cost of the equipment considerably and perhaps even double it. You can trim expenses by locating all the materials yourself and preparing the parts to be fit and welded prior to delivering the job. The less the welder has to do in shaping, fitting and grinding, the less time he or she will spend on the project, reducing the hourly charge. This prep work is not a particularly high-skilled endeavor, and the investment in tools is very reasonable at this stage, so you might consider taking this approach and saving a few dollars in the bargain.

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