Lance Crombie: Spokesperson for the Alcohol-fuel Movement

A Plowboy Interview with the farmer who believes in the possibility of energy self-sufficiency through the use of alcohol fuel.

| January/February 1979

lance crombie

Lance Crombie grows corn to use in making alcohol fuel.


Mr. Lance Crombie of Webster, Minnesota is a farmer ... he even carries business cards which attest to that fact. Crombie, however, has a number of sidelines that aren't exactly typical of a tiller of the soil. 

Lance is, for instance, a former cancer researcher who holds a Ph.D. in microbiology, the inventor of a low-cost solar collector, a partner in the firm that distributes his invention, the chairman of the Minnesota State Heart Fund, an associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Minnesota, a member of the New York Academy of Science ... and he's listed in Who's Who in the Midwest and Outstanding Young Men in the Midwest. 

Lance is also a moonshiner. 

A moonshiner? Yep, you read it right. You see, Crombie is the kind of guy who gets things done when they need doin', and he's not at all hesitant to buck the system or throw out the "accepted " answers when he feels that he can find a better solution by himself. 

So-when his family's fuel bills became more than their budget could bear, Lance sat himself down, designed a sun-powered still, and began to produce corn alcohol ... which he planned to use to heat his home and power his farm machinery. 

It wasn't long, however, before his experiments brought about a head-to-head confrontation between Crombie and the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ... the "revenuers." 

kyle adams
4/11/2012 6:51:34 PM

Do you mean carbon dioxide that was taken from the atmosphere, or the runoff in the production of the crops? I agree with you on the fertilizers. I don't support corn ethanol since it's dependent on fertilizer and has such a low yield. There are other crops that don't rely on fertilizers and have much higher yields. Besides that, I don't condone large-scale ethanol production. The corrosion you're referring to is likely aluminum corrosion. This can be prevented by using alcohol top lube. Alcohol top lubes are designed for methanol, which is a much more corrosive fuel, but will protect the engine just as well. Biodiesel uses methanol, a product of natural gas processing. You might say that it can be generated with other means such as biomass gasification, but right now it's almost exclusively natural gas-derived. This makes *bio*diesel a misnomer. I think you'd be better off using straight vegetable oil with a fuel heater rather than going to the trouble of producing biodiesel. I don't see how biodiesel is more economical or more ecologically friendly. Biodiesel and ethanol production can use crops that don't rely on fertilizers or pesticides (soybeans and Jerusalem artichokes, respectively, among others.) I'm not sure how cheaply biodiesel can be produced, but the average cost that I've seen for ethanol is about $1.15/gallon.

kyle adams
4/11/2012 6:14:15 PM

You're right about the drop in fuel economy. People are obsessed with the BTU comparison of ethanol and gasoline. They don't take into account that ethanol has almost twice the combustion efficiency of gasoline. Its higher octane means that you can increase the compression ratio to 12-18:1 depending on the engine. You can obtain about 22% better fuel economy with a properly converted ethanol vehicle, but the problem is, you won't be able to use gasoline with a high-compression engine. At least, not without an octane booster. I don't condone the use of gasohol.

4/11/2012 2:32:29 PM

Kyle Adams, not only is T Brant correct, but there are other problems with ethanol. I don't have the figures in front of me, but the two additional problems I have seen with ethanol are: 1. If you look at the ENTIRE process, ethanol production creates more pollutants than gasoline production (including some that are far nastier) and 2. ethanol is much more caustic than gasoline, so the engine will wear faster. I'm not just talking gaskets and such, I mean the metal parts like the pistons and cylinders too. This is bad not only because the car won't last as long, but also because as the engine wears it looses efficiency and starts polluting more. As best I remember, a car run consistantly on ethanol will have as much wear wherever the ethanol goes (pistons and cylinders, etc but not places like the bearings) at 75-80K miles as the exact same engine run exclusively on unreformulated gasoline would have at about 100K miles. This may not sound like a lot, but it does contribute to more pollution. Think about it this way. When was the last time you saw a car that blew out a cloud of blue smoke as it accelerated from a stoplight? Want to see 20-25% more of them? Since diesels are much more prevalent in the rest of the world than they are in the US, the technology is there to run more diesel cars here, basically at a moments notice. Biodiesel is a much more economical AND ecologically friendly fuel than Ethanol.

t brandt
4/11/2012 12:27:25 PM

There are studies that do show the production of EtOH for fuel uses more energy than it produces. It depends on how complete your energy accounting goes...Adding 10% EtOH to gasoline decreases your mileage by about 10% also, so there's no net saving of fuel. If you can drive 20mi on a gal of gas, you can only go 18 mi on a gal of 10%EtOH fuel, so it still takes a full gal of gasoline to go the full 20 miles: no net savings of gasoline, just an additional use of EtOH. That makes no sense, except to help corn farmers (while hurting ranchers) and to impress naive green voters...You're right about transport costs. That adds to the lousy EROEI..The biggest problem with crops for fuel is that it takes up land, ruining habitat that could otherwise be left natural.

kyle adams
4/11/2012 3:46:25 AM

t brandt, I don't think that Lance Crombie's project is relevant since he's growing the corn for himself, not the 'starving hordes of Africa.' Also, your EROEI for corn ethanol is wrong. It's ~1.34, which is terrible, but not negative as you suggest. Large-scale ethanol production doesn't make sense because of the huge distances to transport crop material. It makes more sense to produce it on a small scale.

t brandt
3/25/2011 5:31:49 PM

Corn for fuel is a scam. The industry couldn't survive on its own without govt mandates and subsidies. We don't even have to consider the argument that it takes more energy to produce EtOH from corn than you get back in the EtOH, just note this, to get perspective: if the entire US corn crop were turned into fuel each year, it would only satisfy 2% of the world demand for automotive fuel. Just keeping your tires properly inflated would save 10%. Why burn food? As of mid-March, there was only a 60 day supply of corn available to meet world demand. Things are about to get tough.

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