Wednesday, May 17, 2006

TULLAHOMA, Tenn. — The still — standard equipment of any moonshiner — has a shot at becoming the must-have accessory of penny-pinching motorists.

An upstart Tennessee business is marketing stills that can be set up as private distilleries making ethanol — 190-proof grain alcohol — out of fermented starchy crops such as corn, apples or sugar cane. The company claims the still’s output can reduce fuel costs by nearly a third from the pump price of gasoline.

Buyers of stills need a federal permit to make ethanol on private property. In what amounts to an honor system, they are to add a poison to their homemade alcohol so it isn’t “white lightning.”

“We make it very clear that it is against the law to drink what comes out of it,” said Shelley McClanahan, a spokeswoman for her family’s business, Dogwood Energy.

Phones are ringing with orders at the business that mostly sold pellets for wood stoves before pump prices bounced high by Hurricane Katrina focused new attention on a modified still designed by Mrs. McClanahan’s father, inventor-mechanic Bill Sasher.

Since word started getting out in recent weeks about Mr. Sasher’s still, Dogwood Energy has added 10 employees, Mrs. McClanahan said.

Mr. Sasher’s new creekside assembly warehouse in south-central Tennessee — down a backwoods road, next door to a noisy rooster and less than 5 miles from the distillery that makes Jack Daniel’s whiskey — has orders for an estimated 45 assembled stills.

The company is building four or five stills a day and has sold 45 in recent weeks, more than 125 since September, to meet the demand from customers ranging from small businesses to thrifty individuals.

“You can save a lot of money. That’s what this is all about,” Mrs. McClanahan said.

A bushel of the fermented starch crop, mixed with yeast, water and sugar, and allowed to sit for about 2 days, then strained and heated to boiling, makes about 2.6 gallons of ethanol, which is then added to gasoline to produce a blended fuel.

Dogwood Energy says it costs about 75 cents per gallon to make ethanol at home. Adding 15 percent ethanol to $3 gasoline reduces the cost of a fill-up to $2.40 per gallon, Mrs. McClanahan said.

A blend with 85 percent ethanol cuts the cost to $1.09 for a blended gallon, she said.

Mr. Sasher’s stills, which stand about 6 feet high and easily fit in an airy garage corner, sell for about $1,400 each. Blueprints each sell for about $45 and buyers who are good salvagers can build a still themselves for less than $1,000, Mrs. McClanahan said.

Marrcus Mollenarro, a Kenosha, Wis., businessman, bought one of Mr. Sasher’s stills to make it cheaper to run his six personal and business vehicles.

“We don’t have to use oil from the Middle East. There are options,” Mr. Mollenarro said.

Dubose Porter of Dublin, Ga., a state representative and editor of the Courier Herald, said the newspaper ordered a still to help offset delivery costs.

“The still idea is intriguing for a small company like ours,” he said.

Using ethanol to power cars isn’t new. The original Model T Ford was built to run on alcohol.

Mr. Sasher said any modern-day car can run on a mixture of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline. Most vehicle engines can use blends of up to 25 percent ethanol.

More than 30 models of new flex-fuel cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles — including General Motors’ Yukon and Ford’s Taurus — can use up to 85 percent ethanol, known as E85 fuel.

Mrs. McClanahan said most of her customers go to the gas pump “fill up 80 percent full and fill up the rest with alcohol.”

Her company advises its customers to check their owner’s manual and consult with the manufacturers to see what blend of ethanol their cars can use. The Web site provides advice, too.

The Dogwood Energy still is one that Mr. Sasher, 57, developed by modifying designs that date to the 1970s gas shortages.

Its great advantage is cooking the mash at just the right temperature, 170 degrees, according to John Franklin, a former engine company design engineer and teacher in Evansville, Ind., who has ordered two of the stills.

“If the temperature is too high, then you are losing the alcohol. If it is too low, you are not able to recover enough of that alcohol that is pure enough, that is fuel grade,” Mr. Franklin said.

“It really isn’t rocket science,” he said. “He makes it to where it is much more automated. He does that with that mechanical temperature-control valve. That is half the expense of the still. His still is much more automated and much more precise.”

Ethanol already is routinely added to gasoline in New York, Connecticut, California and the Midwest, and makes up about a third of the gas sold in the United States, according to Kristin Brekke, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition of Ethanol in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Finding E85 gas is more of a problem. The 30 or so states with public E85 fueling stations are mostly in the Corn Belt.

Mrs. Brekke said demand for ethanol is increasing, with about 4 billion gallons produced last year in the United States. With 97 plants producing and 34 under construction, output is expected to increase by about 1 billion gallonsthis year.

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil industry, is all for putting ethanol into gasoline, but questions the wisdom of doing it yourself.

“Normally, when people fill up with gasoline with ethanol in it, it is blended by professionals,” API spokesman Bill Bush said. “If we are talking about doing something other than that, by people who don’t normally blend their own gasoline, that raises safety considerations.”

Mrs. McClanahan said no customers have reported accidents with the stills.

Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers, has heard of Dogwood Energy.

“You’ve got to appreciate Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.

He hasn’t heard of anyone making homemade ethanol, though.

“The only ethanol I know being made at home is still the beverage,” Mr. Hartwig said.

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