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Tess Vigeland: This is Marketplace Money from American Public Media. I’m Tess Vigeland. Last year as gas prices were rising by the day. Some experts predicted we’d soon see oil at $200 a barrel. We know how that turned out. But it is safe to predict that one day oil and gas prices will rise again. What if you could get fuel for less than a dollar a gallon, from a machine that costs several thousand dollars upfront? Do the savings add up? We sent reporter Rachel Dornhelm to check it out.
Rachel Dornhelm: Tom Quinn is standing in the driveway of his Silicon Valley home over a contraption about the size of a washer-drier combo.
Tom Quinn: I have a key for safety so only I can pump. And you turn it on…Now you hear the pump turning, this is a similar pump you’d have at the gas station.
Quinn has spent the last 3 years perfecting the eFuel100 — a do-it-yourself ethanol machine.
Quinn: It has a DOT approved nozzle just like you have at the gas station…ah, the fresh sounding of ethanol going in your tank.
Like a washing machine, the eFuel requires just three hook ups: an electric outlet, water in and water out. It makes its auto-grade moonshine out of products now considered garbage — leftover alcohol or else a cheap sugar waste product.
Quinn: This is typical discarded vodka, 80 proof…so that’s 40 percent ethanol. We can pour that in there.
But it’s not like you can dump in the leftover wine from a dinner party and be done with it. It takes 25 gallons of beer to make one gallon of ethanol. But if you know a brewery, no problem, says Quinn.
Quinn: When I talk to these breweries and see how much they’re throwing away and it’s one or two million gallons per year, I think jeeez. You know, that’s really a crime, that’s energy.
Customers who buy a machine can be hooked into a local supply network. They might get leftover wine from Northern California, or beet sugar waste from Nebraska. The machines won’t be available until the end of the year, but Quinn says he’s had thousands of orders. Mostly from small businesses owners like Steve Allen. He has a construction business near Peoria, Ill.
Steve Allen: You know, when you have 10, 20 vehicles on the road running service calls or whatever, it adds up real quick. We probably spend $5,000 a month on fuel.
He says he learned he can fill the tanks of his conventional vehicles with 30 percent ethanol and the rest gasoline.
Allen: There is an empowerment there, I call it, you know, producing your own fuel for yourself.
Allen says he does worry whether the technology will gain wide acceptance. I asked Harvey Blanch at UC Berkeley’s Bioenergy Institute whether the eFuel100 is a practical solution for the average consumer. He responded like the engineering professor he is:
Harvey Blanch: Well, I think you have to sit down and do the math.
Blanch says the process is sound, it’s the way Henry Ford imagined we’d make fuel for cars back in 1908. But while the raw materials for the eFuel ethanol may sound cheap, you have to look at how much it will cost to transport them to your door. Blanch says a single family pumping station may not be efficient.
Blanch: It’s just as the scale gets bigger the economics get much better.
So we’re not going to see homes being sold with a swimming pool and an ethanol fueling station?
Blanch: Well, you never know. It’s all a question of how cheaply we can get the raw material to work with.
And how high gasoline climbs.
In San Francisco, I’m Rachel Dornhelm for Marketplace Money.
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