How To Make a Still for Home Ethanol Production

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Jimmy Langley poses with his still...then puts ethanol to use!

<p>Some folks have a knack for just tackling a problem by the
seat of their pants and coming up with an answer, and Jim
Langley of Heflin, Alabama seems to be one of those people.
Jim picked up a copy of the January/February 1979 issue of
MOTHER EARTH NEWS (which featured an interview with<a href=”” title=” Lance Crombie” target=”_blank”> Lance Crombie</a>, the by-now-famous Minnesota farmer who was
producing his own home fuel), and the explanation of
Lance’s simple solar still really sparked the Alabamian’s
So, without any further ado, Langley sat himself down and
built his own version of a solar distillation apparatus,
using Lance’s description — and a little common sense — as a
guide. “The idea came right out of y’all’s magazine. Just
from reading what Crombie had to say — and adding a few
details from your solar collector articles — I put together
my still. Of course I just guessed at some of the
dimensions … but I must’ve done something right, ’cause
I’m getting fuel strength alcohol on the first run!”
How to Make a Still</h2>
Basically, Jim’s still is a 4 by 8 and a half feet tray that’s 5 and a quarter inches deep — that’s backed with a full sheet of 3/4 inch plywood and
faced with a piece of plexiglass. Inside this bin — at its
midpoint — is a 1 inch by 4 inch board … fastened horizontally to
the sides and rear of the box. (This method of construction
provides for a gap of an inch or so between the glazing and
the horizontal shelf.)</p>
The plywood covering at the rear of the tray has an 8 by 8 inch access door cut into it, positioned just above the ledge
and designed so it can be tightly sealed. The plexiglass
sheet itself is also rendered completely airtight with
silicone sealant, and it’s fastened to the box so that the
transparent material’s lower edge rests inside a 12 by 48 inch board mounted at the foot of the tray. (This plank serves
as part of the alcohol collection bin at the base of the
upright still.) A spigot is then installed at the tray’s
lowest point and used to drain off the distilled product at
regular intervals.
How Ethanol Production Works</h2>
First, Jim built a frame to support the still in a
partially upright position . . . he feels that an angle of
between 57 and 62 degrees is best in his part of the
Cotton State, but he suggests that anyone duplicating his
efforts elsewhere recalculate this angle by merely adding
25 degrees to their own latitude.
After positioning the still at the correct angle and facing
it toward the sun, the Alabamian opens the door at the rear
of the box and places five two-liter, plastic soft-drink
containers — filled with his mash solution — on the horizontal
shelf within the still (he’s cut the top three inches or
so off the neck of each bottle to provide a wider opening).
Then Jim just goes about his daily routine and lets Ol’ Sol
shine on. The theory is that — since alcohol is driven out of
the mixture at a lower temperature than is water — the fuel
rises in a vapor, condenses on the inside surface of the
upper portion of plexiglass facing, and runs down into the
basin at the bottom of the still . . . to be tapped off
How to Use Ethanol Fuel</h2>
Apparently, Mr. Langley’s distillery has produced alcohol pure
enough to run a variety of internal combustion engines. Jim
says he’s operated his motorcycle on a gasoline/alcohol
mixture, but uses pure ethanol fuel in his lawn mower. “I
run a mix of six gallons of alcohol to four gallons of
gasoline in my bike, but I’ve got to add oil to the fuel
since the cycle has a two-stroke engine. On my lawn
mower — which operates just fine on straight alky — I simply
drilled the main metering jet out another .002 inches, adjusted
the air screw on the carburetor, and yanked the starter
cord . . . it purred like a kitten!”
Jim admits that he hasn’t made a large quantity of
“farmer’s fuel” in the several months he’s been
experimenting, but only because alcohol research is just a
hobby for him. “I make a few gallons when I can … since I
enjoy puttering around with gasoline engines. If I had a
lot of alcohol, I might even consider running my car on
pure brew . . . but right now, I’m playing around just for
What’s important, though, is that although Jim might be
“just foolin’ around” he is helping to demonstrate that we
don’t have to depend upon imported, non-renewable sources to
meet our liquid fuel needs.
Of course, Langley’s design may well be too crude — and too
dependent upon uninterrupted sunshine — to be considered a
reliable source of backyard power. (It was such problems
that led our researchers to develop a more efficient
and productive type of still.) But — with the need for a
gasoline substitute growing more and more desperate by the
day — those of us who are experimenting with home-produced
ethanol can’t afford to discount any ideas that might help
make agriculturally produced fuel more available.
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<h2>How to Make a Starch-Rich Mash to Feed The Methane Production</h2>
All successful ethanol production begins with a starch-rich
concoction which converts, easily and thoroughly, to a
yeast culture’s favorite food: fermentable sugars. And — when
the fungi find a generous supply of their preferred
fare — they reward the distiller with a high rate of alcohol
yield. MOTHER EARTH NEWS included several of these mashing recipes in our May/June 1979 issue . .. all of them adapted from beverage “alky”
formulas. Since then, our researchers have been busy
mashing, fermenting, and distilling. Their recent
experience — combined with some expert advice on fuel-grade
alcohol preparation — has resulted in the following technique
… one which returns a maximum volume of flame-grade
Start with a bushel (56 pounds) of well-milled corn and 30
gallons of water adjusted to a pH factor of 7. (Measure the
pH with litmus paper and adjust the factor by adding
agricultural lime to raise the number or citric acid to
reduce the figure.) Slowly add the water to the corneal …
stirring constantly to prevent lumping. Then — once the
solution is well mixed — add two ounces of Taka-Therm enzyme and heat the mash slowly (with
continuous agitation) from room temperature to about
160 degrees Fahrenheit in one hour, (Taka-Therm helps keep the starches
from gelling, but — if you heat the mash too quickly — the
enzyme won’t get a chance to work. If you do make this
error, stop agitating and let the goo cool until it
reliquefies.) Continue to heat the concoction to boiling
point . . . then shut off the heat. Stir the mixture
occasionally while it cools.
Once the temperature drops to about 140 degrees, check the pH
factor again and adjust to 4 (adding citric acid if
necessary). Then put in two ounces of Diazyme, which helps break down
the starch chain molecules and speeds the conversion to
fermentable sugars. Now let your mash cool overnight. By
the following morning the temperature should be in the
70-80 degrees range … which is the correct environment for
yeast feeding.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ research staffers have gotten the best results
with two ounces of moist, caked baker’s yeast. Within a few
hours of adding the yeast, you should begin to see the
hungry plants doing their job. When the “brew” starts
bubbling, cover the barrel (you can use a fermentation lock
for this stage) and just let it rest quietly while the
yeast “chows down”.
Fermentation should be completed in four to six days. You
can tell that your mash is “ripe” when active bubbling
stops and the cap of “corny” material sinks. Once the yeast
is spent, you must put the mash to use right away . . .
before fermentation heads on to the next (undesirable)
Finally, separate the solid material from the liquid mash
mixture by first skimming the fluid from the top and then
squeezing the solids inside a burlap bag . . . over a
milking funnel and a pail. Be sure to set the leftover
grains out to dry promptly, or they will turn bad. These
“distiller’s dried grains and solubles” (DDGS) will become
a key part of the economics of home alcohol production. The
cornmeal by-product is nearly 30 percent protein and makes
excellent livestock feed.