Mike Brown has explored alcohol as an alternative energy source and, after he made some working prototypes, he wrote How to Build a Junkyard Still and Brown’s Alcohol Motor Fuel Cookbook.  Mike wrote this article around the turn of the century.


The major media outlets attempt to have us chase non-solutions to the oil dependency problem, one of which is hydrogen as motor fuel.  Notice they do not even mention farmer’s alcohol and ignore a couple facts about hydrogen:

  • The H2, or molecular hydrogen molecule, is the smallest molecule in the universe. Use it in an internal combustion (spark ignition or diesel) engine and it will leak through the oil coating the piston rings.
  • Gasoline has approximately 120,000 Btus per gallon. Ethyl alcohol has approximately 80,000 Btus per gallon.  Hydrogen has approximately 30,000 Btus per gallon.

First Law of Thermodynamics

Let’s consider the First Law of Thermodynamics.  Written out, that law is: Energy = Heat + Work.  For example, 100,000 Btus of energy used to run an engine that is 25% efficient will produce 25,000 Btus of energy to do work, while 75,000 Btus will escape as heat.

In practical terms, the First Law tells you that if 120,000 Btus = 24 mpg, then 80,000 Btus (everything else being equal, such as compression ratio) = 16 mpg, and 30,00 Btus = 6 mpg.

Disadvantages of Hydrogen

So when you travel using hydrogen, assuming a 20-gallon fuel capacity, you can travel 120 miles on a tank of fuel, but who wants to refuel every two hours and where will you refuel)?

  • Hydrogen from electrolysis of water has to be dried, usually with potassium hydroxide, a really nasty chemical. I.e., water vapor rises with the hydrogen.  Potassium hydroxide, if you get it in your eyes, causes blindness.
  • Notice all the “hydrogen solutions” will take years to implement and cost billions of dollars.
  • When research from the scientific community points out that using hydrogen as a replacement for a source of energy may cause damage to the environment, rumors spring up about the “conspiracy” to obstruct the availability of cheap fuel from the public.


Now let’s consider fuel made from crops.  How practical is it to convert from an oil-based economy running on gasoline and diesel fuel to one running on ethanol?  Let’s start with the numbers.

In the year 2000 Americans consumed 126 billion gallons of gasoline and 37 billion gallons of diesel fuel.  For the year 2002, gasoline consumption was 131 billion gallons and diesel fuel consumption was 39 billion gallons.  Given the current population, that’s slightly less than 1.5 gallons per person per day for gasoline.

Ethanol production at its highest ever was 2 billion gallons in 2002.  That’s roughly 7 gallons per year per person.  How do we go from 7 gallons per year to 1.5 gallons per day per person?

In the year 2000 the U.S. produced 10 billion bushels of corn, and 7 billion of those bushels were used to feed livestock.  The remaining 3 billion went for other uses, including exports.  Assuming we could convert 10 billion bushels of corn to ethanol at the standard rate of 2.5 gallons per bushel, that would be 25 billion gallons of ethanol annually.  That’s only 89 gallons of motor fuel annually per person, or one-fourth gallon per person per day.

Corn Production

So how do we go from enough corn production to increase the alcohol availability six times in order to insure enough ethanol to meet our current domestic fuel needs?

The first, and most obvious way, is to increase corn production.  As of the year 2,000 there were 2,172,289 farms in the United States, with a combined acreage of 943,090,000 acres.  As long ago as 1890 corn yield was 40 bushels an acre.  Today, the yield varies between 100 and 150 bushels.

Rounding off the farm acreage to 900 million, let’s see what we get.  If all this acreage were in corn, we would have 90 billion bushels of corn, which could be converted to 225 billion gallons of alcohol fuel, as compared with the 125 billion gallons of gasoline we use now.

That’s about 100 billion gallons of ethanol we don’t really need.  However, not all farmland in the United States is suitable for corn production.  It would only take two-thirds of the presently existing farmland.

Engine conversion

How hard is it to convert from gasoline to alcohol in a spark ignition engine?  Try this simple experiment.  Crank up your lawn mower engine and run it for a minute or two on gasoline.  Then empty the fuel tank, making sure the fuel tank is really empty.  Now try to run the engine with no fuel or run it until the fuel in the fuel lines, the carburetor, and the float bowl is gone.

Obtain a bottle of 190 proof grain alcohol from the local liquor store and pour it into the fuel tank.  Turn the needle valve on the carburetor (which regulates the amount of fuel going into the engine) out one and a half to three turns.  This changes the air/fuel ratio.  The air/fuel ratio of air to gasoline is 15 to 1, 9 to 1 for alcohol.

Your lawn mower engine will fire right up. Notice it didn’t take years to develop or billions of dollars to fund this solution.  The whole operation took you less than an hour with an investment under $10.00.

  At one time you could have bought a Fish carburetor that could be adjusted just as quickly.  However, with the increasing use of fuel injection the manufacturer was forced to cease production.

Mike Brown with Japanese Zero: Fueled on Alcohol
Oshkosh, Wisconsin July 1979

Mike Brown with a Briggs & Stratton carburetor sitting on a Vega dynamometer in the automotive and machine shop at Berea College

Mike Brown with a Briggs & Stratton carburetor sitting on a
Vega dynamometer
in the automotive and machine shop at Berea College

Dual Fuel Unit in 1975 Chevy Suburban

Dual Fuel Unit in 1975 Chevy Suburban (more pictures)