Biofuel ain't nothing but moonshine misspelled

Future Tense for May. 28, 2007

By Steve Welker

With the world running out of oil, some old jobs may make a comeback in the next 50 years.

It may be awhile before we see a big demand for buggy-whip and harness makers, saddlers, farriers and wheelwrights, but I see growth opportunities in moonshining.

By any other name — ’shine, corn liquor, mountain dew or white lightnin’ — the moonshiners’ product is nothing but water, flavorings and alcohols. Most of the alcohol is ethanol. If we Americans can replace a couple of gallons of gasoline in every fill-up with ethanol, the oil sheiks of Araby can go kiss my made-in-the-U-S-A Astrovan.

I confess I don’t know much about moonshine, not having grown up hereabouts in upland North Carolina. My people up in Pennsylvania made hard cider or wines, low-proof and usually for personal consumption, though my Uncle Carl "Sparky" Welker made a popskull piestengel (rhubarb wine) that probably could have powered the Millersburg Volunteer Fire Department’s pumper.

I do know something about alcohol, having been a foreman in a chemical plant. Starkey Chemical in Brookfield, Ill., produced various alcohol-based products. My line made and packed duplicator fluid.

Before Xerox-like copiers became common and inexpensive, schools and business offices often cranked out copies on “ditto” machines (often made by A.B. Dick) that daubed alcohol through a stencil and left purple ink traces on paper. Back in elementary school, my classmates usually knew when we’d have a pop quiz because the teacher came in smelling faintly like my alcoholic Aunt Ruby and flashing violet-tipped fingertips.

In somewhat blurred and bleary-eyed hindsight, canning alcohol may have been one of the better jobs I’ve had. No matter how down I felt when the shift started, I felt high by the end of the day. Drinking duplicator fluid could kill or blind someone — we blended methyl “wood” alcohol with ethanol to make it undrinkable — but inhaling the fumes was intoxicating. There were two downsides to the job. After work, some of us drifted over to Rocco’s on Ogden Avenue and the bartender, seeing us coming, immediately set up boilermakers, because beer alone couldn't induce a buzz in our alcohol-fogged systems. And then on Sunday morning, after being off work for 24 hours, the hangover that hit made hellfire and brimstone seem like peaches and cream by comparison.

A boilermaker is a shot of whisky with a glass of beer on the side.

Molecular alcohol is nothing but water with methyl groups on the side.

To make an alcohol, start with an H-two-O water molecule and replace one of the aitches with a carbon atom. The C will be grouped with three hydrogens, kind of like Hugh Hefner hooked up with a trio of Playmates. As you add more CH3s — call them “hiccups” — higher alcohols acquire different qualities, much like adding booze to a bachelor party.

The simplest alcohol is methanol, CH3OH. Chemists can make small amounts out of water vapor and carbon monoxide. Manufacturers produce millions of gallons from steam and the methane in natural gas.

You might expect that the next-highest alcohol has two hiccups. Wrong! Ethanol has almost two hiccups. Its formula is CH3CH2OH. Missing one tiny hydrogen atom makes a big difference between ethanol and other alcohols, especially in how it’s made.

Manufacturers make most alcohols by snapping together atoms and molecules like pieces of a Tinkertoy set. But not ethanol. Fermentation remains the easiest, most-economical way of producing it.

More than 6,000 years ago, mankind discovered that certain yeasts converted sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide. This fermentation process makes bread dough rise (the ethanol evaporates during baking) and turns fruit juices into wine, honey into mead and starchy grain mashes into beer.

Centuries later, an Iranian physician named Zakaria ye Razi discovered that if you heat a liquid containing ethanol to about 174 degrees Fahrenheit (78.4 degrees Celsius), the ethanol boils away as a vapor that condenses when it cools, distilled into near-pure ethanol.

Moonshiners successfully combined this chemical technology — fermentation and distillation — to create a value-added product from locally grown corn. Federal revenue agents took a dim view of the enterprise, first because it violated Prohibition and later because the government couldn’t collect taxes from these entrepreneurs. Junior Johnson, for one, made an 11-month detour in life through the federal reformatory at Chillicothe, Ohio, because he ran afoul of the feds. However, aside from being illegal, there is nothing inherently evil about making ethanol.

Today, people have begun rediscovering the moonshiners’ secrets. What’s spurring their interest is, of course, the high price of gasoline and what was, until recently, the falling price of ethanol.

Not so many months ago, Midwest wholesale prices for ethanol had dropped to about $1.20 per gallon. More recently, because of short supplies and high demand, the price has more than doubled to $2.75 per gallon — close to what regular gasoline cost in Mount Airy this weekend. Ethanol’s price should settle soon to about $2.25. No one expects gasoline prices to fall that much.

However, you can’t directly compare ethanol’s price and gasoline’s.

Chemically, ethanol does not have gasoline’s energy density. Burning a gallon of gas produces about 125,000 BTUs; a gallon of ethanol, 84,400. Complicating comparisons, blending the two fuels produces different energy profiles. Gasoline and ethanol in a 90/10 ratio has almost as much energy as gasoline alone — 120,900 BTUs. What’s called “E85,” a blend with 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, produces an effective 104,000 BTUs per gallon in flexible-fuel-optimized cars. And Saab recently demonstrated a car that actually gets better “gas” mileage on nothing except ethanol’s energy.

It may be awhile before more ethanol-optimized autos reach a dealer near you, but when they do, it won’t surprise me to learn that new stills have begun smoking and bubbling in the hollows, dribbling out streams of ethanol for fuel, not foolishness ... in the future.

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