Energy Independence and Small Business Part II: Interesting Alternatives

One of the great things about small business is the spirit of entrepreneurship, the ability to see a need and fill it quickly. In my last blog entry, I detailed some of the energy-related issues facing small business today and the plans of the three major candidates to deal with this crisis sooner or (more likely) later. The fact is that there are alternatives that you can put into place that can lower your energy costs, alternatives that do not require new, unproven technology. There are also business opportunities that could turn some plucky entrepreneur into the next John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford. Remember, big business frequently starts out as a small business. 

Alternative Fuels
We hear all about biofuels and ethanol, fuels that can operate your vehicle at a fraction of the cost and don’t depend on a single drop of oil. They come from surprising sources and have a long history. 

Call it Ethanol, booze, social lubricant, grain alcohol, it is all the same thing: Ethyl Alcohol. Here in the U.S. it is approved as a fuel additive, but down in Brazil, half the cars on the road run on pure alcohol. In addition, they also have flex-fuel vehicles that can run on either gasoline or ethanol. Henry Ford called ethanol the “fuel of the future” and his Model T was engineered to run on this fuel. The Germans, in World War II used ethanol as a rocket fuel and the Japanese used it to fuel their aircraft.

The technology is there so why can’t we use it? We are, sort of. There are increased Federal mandates to explore ethanol development and use. That includes finding alternatives to corn for ethanol production. This is not difficult considering that corn is not the only source of ethanol. You can make it from all sorts of things from grass clippings to rice to fruit.

It does have some drawbacks. Alcohol is not as efficient as gasoline, you don’t get the same level of energy out of a gallon of ethanol as you do from a gallon of gas. The difference is about two-thirds. Still, the difference is easily made up in price per gallon. Ethanol is cheaper, easily made, easier on the environment and a great support for agriculture. Not only will it encourage regular agricultural activities, but ethanol production can also be done at the farm level. Consider this from Michael Brown, author of Brown’s Alcohol Motor Fuel Cookbook:

Let’s say we had to replace one-third of our domestic gasoline consumption with alcohol as quickly as possible.

The time for a simple farmer to set up 100 55-gallon drums to produce 250 gallons of alcohol with a pipe full of rocks as a fractionating column to produce 190 proof (95%) alcohol is one day. The time to ferment is three days. The time to distill is one day.

That is, we could drop our dependence on gasoline by one-third in one week. In three years, we could end our dependence on petroleum forever.

Are these realistic numbers? Perhaps. It is hard to say since this would have to be done on a massive scale, but it does open an intriguing line of thought. I am not sure how well it would go over with our friends at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms since it would require people to have their own stills to make, what would for all practical purposes be, 190 proof grain alcohol, just like the moonshine granddad used to make. The start-up costs would not be that much and the remainder, what’s left after the distillation process, would be good livestock feed. 

Vegetable Oil for Your Diesel Engine
Wessonality is no longer just for the kitchen! The amazing thing about it is that no changes to the engine itself are needed. Pour it in and it runs. According to Brown, after finding a master’s thesis on the use of soybean oil as a diesel fuel, he decided to test the idea.

So I picked up a gallon of diesel fuel and a gallon of soybean oil and took them to the [Berea] college’s shop. Dr. Donald Hudson—who taught the course in Advanced Power Mechanics—was as curious about my experiment as I was . . . and he test-started the shop’s 800-horsepower Cummins turbo-charged J-model diesel. The engine, of course, ran perfectly on diesel fuel. Then, knowing that the Cummins was in working order, I disconnected the fuel lines, drained the tank, and—once everything was reconnected—poured in the gallon of vegetable oil.

The engine came to life with a roar . . . and the smell of a hundred burning skillets filled the shop. It worked!

That successful experiment caused me to read further into the MIT thesis. The authors of that paper found that soybean oil actually produced more power—per pound—than did diesel fuel itself! Which seems to mean that the vegetable product would deliver more miles per gallon than would the petroleum derivative.

The downside of this is cost. Bio-fuel producers have a problem when the price per pound exceeds $0.34. As of this writing, soybean oil is trading at 0.355 per pound on the Chicago Board of Trade. That comes out to about $2.84 per gallon. With a national average of $4.03 per gallon of diesel fuel, that makes for a real bargain and if the capacity for turning this oil into a viable fuel increases, then the prices will fall even further. The other problem is with the fuel itself. Because of its high viscosity, it cannot start an engine cold. In addition, if the temperature drops too much, the oil will solidify and that can damage the fuel lines and other engine components.

The answers to these issues include using a block heater, which will keep the vegetable oil liquid and reduce its viscosity a bit so it flows into the engine better; and using petrol-diesel to start the car and before you turn it off to clear the engine of the vegetable oil.

But I thought you said that you can just pour it in! Very true. A diesel engine will run on vegetable oil, get better performance and fill the air with that fresh-from-the-skillet smell, but as of today it will not start on vegetable oil. For that you need to make some changes to the fuel delivery system of the vehicle so you can switch from one to the other. You do not need to alter the engine itself.

Creating Conversions: A Cottage Industry
More and more conversion vehicles are on the road every day. Some run on veggie-diesel, some on ethanol. These are not the only things people run vehicles on. Straight electricity, steam, compressed air, coal dust and other, more exotic things are used as well, but the focus today is on ethanol and veggie-diesel.

Alcohol and vegetable oil each have much longer histories than most people believe. These alternative fuels stand on solid science that goes back many years, yet most of the innovations and practical advances have been made recently by individuals sick of paying high gas prices. Tinkering in their garages, they have come up with ways to change the fuel used by their vehicles. Of course, that has always been the way with small business. You see a need, you fill it. There is a problem, you solve it. Some of these innovators developed kits so you could do your own conversions, others provide that service for a fee. With a little research and education, what can you do to take advantage of what is happening in the energy industry today? How can you leverage the situation?