2008 was supposed to be ethanol’s coming-out year. A cheaper, cleaner-combusting alternative to petroleum—distilled from corn, sugarcane, or prairie grasses—would finally sow Big Oil’s bitter harvest. Ethanol’s byproducts were equally seductive: lowered tailpipe emissions, biodegradable vegetable matter, and Thomas Friedman–grade geopolitical stability.
Then, almost overnight, the public’s swoon ended, fed by images of rainforests cleared for biofuel-crop cultivation, skyrocketing corn futures, bloated U.S. farm subsidies, and dire grain-shortage warnings from the World Food Bank. Brought to market just as op-ed columns were running at their most vitriolic, a DIY home ethanol factory should have been pronounced DOA. Instead, thousands of EFuel100 MicroFuelers will have shipped by year’s end. Did its purchasers drink the Kool-Aid, or were the bloviators too quick to dismiss a miracle fuel?
The answer is obvious to Tom Quinn, EFuel’s CEO and the developer, along with engineering director Floyd Butterfield, of the company’s introductory product, the MicroFueler. Their device shrewdly reframes the case for ethanol in the language of consumer empowerment, while recasting the gas pump’s blocky form in smooth, pleasing contours. (Design kudos are shared with Silicon Valley shop Focus, ironically known for penning power-enhancing—and fuel-economy–depleting—exhaust systems for BMW parts supplier Dinan.) The MicroFueler’s pumping module features a retractable hose, a push-button starter, and a simple LCD readout. Its separate fermentation tank is no larger than a Coleman cooler, and up to four attached fermentation tanks can be accommodated—a boon to commercial customers with delivery-truck fleets who, according to Quinn, account for 65 percent of EFuel’s business. Installed outside a home’s garage, the MicroFueler literally sips grid power from any conventional AC outlet while fermenting, then distilling, a mix of energy-rich sugar stock and yeast supplied either by EFuel’s delivery network or directly by the consumer. In about five days, a 35-gallon tank of homemade ethanol is ready to pump, costing roughly $1 per gallon.
But a cheaper tank of gas is not the MicroFueler’s only selling point. By minimizing oil companies’ participation in its production, MicroFueler ethanol is virtually freed from the petrodependent cycle of distillation and transportation that has weakened the case for mass-produced biofuels. Casting the consumer as producer resonates with the Feds, too: MicroFueler owners receive 30 percent tax rebates and carbon credits. Quinn and Butterfield claim that in two years their product pays for itself. Come late 2010, don’t be surprised if you spot the bloviators sheepishly sliding into reverse gear; $9,995.