A Very Important Introductory Note: Owning a still is legal in the United State according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). It is not legal to use your still to Distill Ethanol Fuel without a permit nor is it legal to Distill Spirits for personal use. I created my still after watching countless YouTube videos and reading various reference web sites. I made one small batch of Distilled Ethanol Fuel, less than 1 liter, which I later found out was illegal in the US because I did not have a permit for it- even though it was a one-time experiment! Well- I now have a permit. After going through this process I believe, that every serious prepper would be well served by reading this essay in full, making a simple still , and then deciding on whether to legally test the process or just have it as a backup tool.
Now to begin formally- Every serious prepper should understand the basics of distilling and have a small still set up and ready to use, just in case. Why? Well a still is a terrific multi purpose tool to have at your bug-in location. With a still you have the ability to produce Ethanol and make Spirits, both for trade and personal use. You can also use a still to make Distilled Water – useful in a number of ways. If you want to get specific, a still is a tool that will help you separate liquid substances through the application of heat. Upon different boiling points of your mash, different liquids will be released as vapor. A still will create the environment for the separation and then using a cooling process, will return the separated vapor back to liquid form for collection.
In the event of a protracted failure of the current social contract or an extended period of hyperinflation, you will have a both a tool and trade. With enough investment in time and materials you will have a renewable source of fuel for your non-diesel vehicles. If you are like me, it is just fun to learn and potentially very useful in case TSHTF.
Since this is a Beginner's Guide, I'm only going to share some very basic information about stills and the capabilities of Ethanol. Disclaimer: I am also a beginner at Distilling Ethanol . I am fairly certain I am not the only Survival Blog reader to experiment in this direction but it looks like several years have passed since the topic has been addressed and not to the level that any prepper could start out with and 'take to the bunker' in my opinion. Let me say that there are definitely a lot of folks who know a whole lot more than I do (especially about various yeasts, mashes, enzymes, still design and basically everything about Ethanol Fuel production) but I do feel comfortable relating the basics to an audience. Please keep in mind this is a Beginner's Guide, and there are a very, very many ways to skin this proverbial cat. This is a quick and dirty bang-up that just about anyone can put into use over the course of a weekend like I did- as a proof of concept . You will not learn truly efficient production of Ethanol Fuel from this essay, but you will be exposed to possibilities and resources to guide you further in your studies and I encourage you to study further.
My goal is to give the SurvivalBlog community enough information and resources to quickly and legally work through a proof of concept Ethanol Reflux Still with capital outlay of less than $100 and to provide enough information so that even if you do not work a still, you will be able to tell if someone else is actually doing enough of a correct process to not cause you problems.
Why do you want to have a still? Well for me the ability to produce Ethanol was of terrific importance. The ability to produce Spirits was a vague intellectual interest as well, but most importantly is the idea of personal responsibility and self sufficiency that I believe many preppers share. Sure- we stock pile food and ammunition but those are non-renewable resources. If you don't have the capability or desire to grow your own food and raise your own livestock you still need some sort of useful skill that will allow you to retain your capital resources and focus on growing through other sustainable enterprise. Distilling Ethanol for fuel seemed like a good choice to investigate further. After all – garbage is eternal .
So what is so great about Ethanol? Here is my short list.
Ethanol is a clean burning fuel (much cleaner than even bio-diesel) that can work in your vehicle and can be used as a cooking fuel. Ethanol mixes very well with Kerosene – allowing for an extension of supply. 100 years ago Ethanol mixed with Turpentine was often used for lighting (Just in case you don't store kerosene). Ethanol can also be added to gasoline (It must be dehydrated first!) and with the correct supplies and purifying process you can even make your own E85 (85% Ethanol and 15% Gasoline) fairly easily and at a greatly reduced cost than what you experience at the pump.
(Read: potential to extend supply of existing gasoline and to further create your own Fuel if that supply is exhausted. Some Survival Blog readers are sure to have non-Ethanol unleaded gas stored for a rainy day due to its extended storage life. How about planning on adding Ethanol on an as-needed basis? Just a thought. For me, it is the potential of 50 gallons of Fuel at 17 MPG +/- or 100 Gallons of 50% Ethanol Mix at about 14 MPG – the math kind of speaks for itself there as long as the supplies exist to create the Ethanol Fuel as needed.)
Many vehicles sold today are Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) that are designed by the manufacturer to run either Gasoline or E85 or any mix between the two. If you don't have an FFV vehicle you CAN re-chip what you do have if it is electronic and whilst you may experience more maintenance- you will certainly save money in fuel costs if you are making your own fuel at a reasonable production level and have close enough to the same mileage per gallon. If you have a carburetor in your vehicle you can account for the lower temperature, slower burn of Ethanol Alcohol by retarding your timing, having a multi-fire distributor and increasing the Air to Fuel ratio. If you run straight (100%) Ethanol Alcohol as a fuel there are more considerations involving fuel lines, jets, gaskets, cylinder compression and filters. (I am only brushing the surface here as this topic could easily be its own essay but I will say that it greatly surprised me to find that the first automobiles were all fueled by Ethanol and not gasoline.)
Fuel is a very important consideration in the present environment. As an example of how producing Ethanol Fuel could help me personally, I drive an old Full Size Jeep with no electronics – I would just need to retard the timing a bit and possibly fiddle with the choke if I put a Ethanol mix into it – I do not plan to go E85, I might try out a 25% Ethanol mix and then see if 50% Ethanol mix worked well with minimal changes to the motor, fuel delivery and ignition systems. If I did a 50% Ethanol mix then the price to fill my tank drops about 25% according to my estimates- but the trade off is the time spent managing the operation safely and consistently.
Ethanol stores well – in an airtight container it will sit for years- if left open to the air it will suck moisture out of the atmosphere and gradually lose potency. Ethanol is a common solvent and even has medicinal properties, most commonly used to cleanse wounds (but ouch! it stings). You can also whip up Alcohol stoves out of tin cans if you decide you need a cooking surface quickly or power an actual alcohol stove – which delivers a nice constant heat... Quite a few uses really.
Best of all, in my opinion, Ethanol alcohol comes from the fermentation of yeasts that eat sugar out of starches and cellulose. While corn is traditionally thought of for a mash to produce ethanol (mostly for economic concerns for production), in reality it can be produced (though not as efficiently) from almost anything that you might normally compost from your leftovers...if you have the right enzymes to facilitate the breakdown of starches and cellulose into sugars. Some examples would be Beets, Carrots, Potatoes, Sugar Cane, any Sorghum grain, Artichokes and especially for those of you in the Midwest, Switchgrass is apparently an excellent producer of Ethanol. You can literally create Ethanol Fuel out of garbage with the right process and enzymes- again it wont be as efficient as with, say, Sugar Cane (which is what Brazil uses) but you get the idea. Many Ethanol producers clean and sell the waste mash as feed for livestock- depending on what you are fermenting this may also be a possibility for you. I don't have any livestock so after I was done with the mash, it went to the compost bin (where it would have been anyway), but if you ramp up to a serious production level Ethanol operation, you can usually use the leftover corn mash as hog feed at the very least. Yeast eats sugar and not corn or vegetable matter. Your mash uses temperature and maybe enzymes to help release the sugar from the starch or cellulose so you have a better idea of what your waste material is if you choose to use it as feed.
See the Wikipedia page on Ethanol for more information about this useful substance.
I recently made my first Reflux Still at a cost of $75 in one afternoon. This was not a 'Production Still', but served as a test in theory. With this small still, I can distill 5 gallons of corn mash or sugar water into approximately 1 liter +/- of Ethanol Fuel, which was my main purpose. There are many types of stills, very basic ones are functionally no different than a Pressure Cooker or Stock Pot with a hose poking out for the Steam/Condensate to pass through and a bucket of cold water to help the Ethanol Alcohol go back into liquid form. More advanced types, such as the Reflux Still I made, have a length of (usually Copper or Stainless Steel) pipe with non reactive stuffing in the pipe like glass or stainless steel marbles. I used Stainless steel scouring pads. This extra 'stuffing' helps greatly to catch condensate and 'purify' the end result. The general pot and tube method may be able to generate as high as 75%-80% ethanol which is not fuel grade but fine for Spirits. Most of the online videos showing folks making Rum or Spirits use this method which is illegal and not practical for producing Ethanol Fuel. The Reflux Still method can go as high as 96% which is much closer to fuel grade (100% Alcohol) for sure. My test run using baker's yeast had about ½ cup of the first Ethanol distillate that measured almost 90% alcohol but the results quickly lowered in Alcohol percentages, just to give you an idea.
My simple Reflux Still is a 30” length of 1 inch copper pipe stuffed with 2 stainless steel wire scouring pads-cut in half (solid core ribbon and not covered thread). There are 2, 1-inch 90 degree elbows soldered to the top to form an upside down U shape. The water cooling jacket is formed from the other side of the upside down U shape. There is a 1 inch to ½ inch reducer that is soldered to a 12 inch length of ½ inch copper pipe which provides the outlet for the Alcohol. The Water Jacket (for cooling) consists of 2, 1 inch to ½ inch Reducer Ts that are capped and soldered together with ½ inch holes drilled in the caps. 2 additional lengths of ½ inch copper pipes are soldered to the Reducer Ts to form the Water Inlet and Water Outlet. Each of the 3, ½ inch pipes protruding from the water jacket are fitted with ½ inch male adapters to fit hoses onto.
The main Reflux Chamber is added to a 2 gallon Stock Pot which has a 1 inch hole drilled into the cover. I supported the Still Reflux Chamber by adding a 1 Inch T section to the bottom of the Reflux Chamber and bolting the T wings to the Lid. The lid is held onto the Stock pot by three Vice grips set firm but not crazy tight. Now a lot of folks will use a pressure cooker here for the gasket seal and safety valve (which is more energy efficient and more recommended than what I did). I used the vice grips and coated the Pot Lid and top of the Stock Pot with a flour and water mixture to provide a seal of sorts that will still vent a bit without blowing up. If you decide to use a Pressure Cooker (again, recommended but keep in mind you will be at 15 psi rather than the 1-3 psi that I am with my set up - just a thought.) then you will probably spend more than $100 for your Proof of Concept unless you get lucky at a Thrift Store – remember you will have to drill through the lid – some of the older cast aluminum pressure cookers are quite thick.
If you decide to use a Stock Pot (or a 55 gallon steel drum for that matter) and are concerned about a buildup of pressure – a very simple pressure release valve to consider using is another scrap piece of pipe sticking up out of the lid with a weighted can over it (maybe a ½ oz or 1 oz fishing sinker weight for example- heck even a small rock would work)...this will bubble up and release your steam when/if the pressure gets high enough (1-3 psi was my target, rather like a normal pot lid) and allow you to proceed with extra caution and safety.
I used Lead Free Solder and Flux and also used JB Weld on the hole in the Stock Pot Lid. The capabilities of JB Weld go to 600 degrees, far above the 170 – 215 degree temperature your pot will cook mash in.
Now with your still ready- you can make a quick mash and get to producing Ethanol.
The first step is to thoroughly clean everything! If you use a plastic bucket for the mash to ferment then use a non abrasive cleaner, but clean everything at least two times! Make sure the bucket is a food grade. If you have a glass carboy great – clean it. I also steamed the inside of the Reflux Still for 30 minutes before I got the mash cooking.
Quick Mash- Mix a 5 pound bag of corn masa (not flour- you want it grainy but not clumpy!) with a 5 pound bag of sugar in a plastic 5 gallon food grade bucket. Add bottled or filtered water to close to the top of the 5 gallon bucket. Stir it around real good and add a packet or two of some simple baker's yeast. Stir it around some more getting it good and oxygenated. Then cover it and let it sit for 2-3 days. (If you feel the need for a one-way vent then a simple way to do it is to drill a small hole in your bucket lid and tape a surgical glove over the hole then use a needle to poke a small hole in one of the fingers. You will see the fingers of the glove partially inflate while the mash ferments.) Agitate the mash again real good after 2-3 days by shaking the bucket- you don't need to open it. The yeast is done fermenting the sugars to alcohol when all the sediment stays at the bottom and is no longer partially suspended. This usually takes about 4-5 days.
Now you are ready to distill the Mash.
Get yourself a heat source and don't use your kitchen range unless your family is particularly forgiving of strange and potentially foul odors permeating your home. Ideally you have a something like a propane turkey fryer element or an electric hotplate set up in a safe and controlled environment. Get a bucket full of ice water and a small submersible pump for the water jacket. Create a closed loop of cold water in to the water sleeve and hot water back into the bucket. Apply your heat and monitor temperature. I found that a handheld digital infrared thermometer worked well for my one-time experiment unless you want to spring for some pipe surface thermometers at additional cost. It does require you to be more hands-on, constantly watching and measuring temperature, but this was only a one-time proof of concept test – you can always grab a good book or a friend and a deck of cards and remember to manage your production run as safely as possible.
Since the Reflux chamber of my simple still was only secured with vice grips, I also tied 2 safety guides to the U bend at the top of the pipe just to be extra sure that the apparatus wouldn't tip over unexpectedly- you might want to do the same. Be on the lookout for steam leaks - Alcohol vapor can be explosive so be sure to test your still and carefully monitor for Steam leaks- if you have a leak that you didn't catch when boiling water you should stop and fix it before you continue your production, especially since this still is attached directly to the mash pot, which is being heated. Be Safe!
The alcohol will begin to boil off at about 170 degrees. My Reflux still showed signs of boiling closer to 180 degrees F. The water jacket part of your still should bring the temperature down to about 70-80 degrees F at the outlet which is about perfect for the Ethanol to turn back into liquid form. As the alcohol level decreases, the temperature of the mash and the (Stock Pot) will increase. When your mash pot reads close to 215 degrees then your mash is done producing Ethanol and is starting to produce Steam Water. The entire production run for this small still should last about 2.5 hours, I stopped at about 100 minutes. A larger Mash Pot will of course take longer to heat...my advice is to do what I did, start small to get a feel for it, and of course get an ATF permit first to be legal and check with your County for additional requirements.
Now a quick note on using Ethanol as fuel for your car. Do not take your Ethanol from this production and pop it in your gas tank! Fuel Grade Ethanol is 100% alcohol and the very best you can get with any still is going to be around 96% alcohol. My still's total production from this experiment averaged only 76% Alcohol when totaled together– you don't want that anywhere near your engine! To make sure all of the water is out of the Ethanol you need to treat your batch with Zeolite chunks (which is a molecular sieve that absorbs the extra water content). Zeolite is expensive – expect to pay north of $100-$200 for enough of the type 3A gravel chunks to be worthwhile but it is infinitely reusable, soak your Ethanol in the Zeolite chunks overnight and strain out the 100% Ethanol- Dry your Zeolite chunks over your BBQ periodically and you are good to go. Also Invest in a hydrometer to double check your alcohol percentages (and look like a mad scientist when doing it- I put on a white lab coat for full effect) – a hydrometer is usually around $20 and recommended to make sure you are fuel grade before adding Ethanol into your gas tank. Water in your gas tank is bad!
Ok- so you have made Ethanol. Would you be surprised to learn that nearly the exact same process is how you go about making Spirits? (Remember- the ATF says distillation of Spirits for personal use is 'impractical' due to numerous permits and taxes that are to be paid) Molasses makes Rum, Potato makes Vodka, so on and so forth. There are additional nuances for each type of Spirit but now you know the basics for sure. Your simple production run of Ethanol from above “could” be divided and proofed down (watered) and flavored to make Schnapps or homemade Kahlua for example, so your quick and dirty production is potentially not worthless...it is just very strong and somewhat impure drinking alcohol. So for about $10 in raw materials for the mash – depending on what flavoring you use and how strong you like it- you can probably get 3-4 bottles of homemade Spirits which is, again, not legal to make for personal use according the ATF, but in the event of the End of the World it is reasonable to assume the ATF may either overlook your transgression or be otherwise occupied.
Now I do feel compelled to state that this simple Ethanol still is designed for Fuel and not Spirits- it will certainly kick out trace amounts of other alcohols that are not good to digest – like Methanol and Butanol let alone having JB Weld holding some seams...so just keep in mind this is not the right set up or process for making quality Spirits, at a very minimum you would want to proof the product down to 40% Alcohol give or take and you would need a series of food grade charcoal filters to help clean up the Product before you should even consider drinking it(and I'm not sure I would even trust that too much), you will see what I mean if you tackle this experiment using my quick examples! For making Spirits really drinkable the process is called 'polishing' and normally takes anywhere from 1 week to a month of soaking activated carbon in the Distilled Ethanol and then filtering the carbon dust out of the Alcohol to remove the bad stuff that gives to 'yuck factor' to moonshine and turns the product into something more like Vodka, tasteless and odorless.
Remember, the point of this essay is for Ethanol Fuel Production . Please take the time to familiarize yourself with the legalities, the YouTube videos that are everywhere about Distilling generally gloss over the legal requirements if they are mentioned it at all. It is a mess that you do not want to get involved with if, for some reason, the ATF does a check on your Homemade Liqueur Operation because you post it on YouTube and you are found to have homemade Distilled Spirits or Ethanol that has not been denatured. Then they find out you are a prepper and have more than three days of stored food, then they notice you have more than one magazine for your pistol and more than 50 rounds of ammunition in your house...I am sure you get the idea.
Here is how my production with baker's yeast as first-time experiment turned out.
1.75 gallons of mash started to boil at 47 min at 182 degrees F. The chamber read 105F, between the water cooling pipes read 95F, the top read 111F and the jacket read 74F. After 10 minutes my product was filmy and pungent, and measured 89%-92% Alcohol. 12 minutes later the pot measured 189F, the chamber 111F, between the cooling pipes read 89F, the top measured 101F and the cooling jacket read 80F. At this point I have about 2 cups of product but the alcohol percentage for the second cup reads only 74% alcohol – far less film and stink. The temperature readings stayed approximately the same for another 50 minutes. The production of Ethanol was about 3.5 cups. Total alcohol measure of entire production was 76% Alcohol. So- I got about 3.5 cups of 76% Ethanol Alcohol after about 1.5 hours and could have run the production longer but decided not to. Note- Alcohol percentages in the output dropped considerably over time.
Now I need to try out champagne yeast or turbo yeast for extra alcohol content, et cetera to really see how much Ethanol fuel I could really net from capital outlay – but I think you get the idea here, making a quality Ethanol product isn't just a wham-bang deal, its needs some precise expertise to make it really functional and worthwhile. Consider also that this simple Reflux Still also leaves something to be desired when compared to one designed by a professional...but it is pretty inexpensive and it works better than pot with a copper tube sticking out of it for close enough to a Fuel grade product to be workable in a pinch.
Now that you have done a simple run with your still, you are well positioned to explore using different yeasts for increased alcohol production (baker's yeast obviously isn't the best). If you work out an agreement with a local farm for example – you may be able to buy your bulk corn- mill it down and instead of adding sugar, add certain enzymes to your mash to facilitate a more natural breakdown of starches for sugars. After you are done with your production, the leftover corn mash can be rinsed and dried and used as feed. My understanding is that normally 100 gallons of mash will produce about 10 gallons of fuel grade Ethanol if you have a really tight process...which mathematically fits the production made from my test run of 1.75 gallons of mash to get about 3.5 cups of moderate to high proof Ethanol. Buy corn in bulk for about $7 a bushel (on the exchanges at least) which is about 70 pounds – just one bushel would net you about 40 gallons of mash give or take, or you can just use bulk sugar if you like. Enzymes are a little pricey as a capital outlay but last a long time. You could probably expect to get your fuel grade Ethanol cost down to between $1.50-$2 per gallon if you got serious with it, maybe less is you re-sold or bartered the mash as livestock feed.
Okay, now for some more specific legal considerations. Before you make anything with a still, you need to check with your County jurisdiction about obtaining a permit. You will also need to be registered with the ATF and in case of an inspection you will need to know how to denature your Ethanol so that it cannot be used for homemade Spirits. Form 5110.74 is the document for a Fuel Distiller and they will want to know the general layout of where your still will be located on your property. They do not want to see it in your back yard patio or in an attached garage or next to your least favorite neighbor's bedroom window so keep in mind safety and practicality. Use an outbuilding 20-50 feet away from your home and other structures if at all possible. There is no cost to file for the ATF permit and they do not even require your social security number, however you will still need to invest time at the local level to track down the correct process for your jurisdiction.
For making Homemade Spirits by Distilling with the intent for personal consumption – again, be aware that it is NOT ok according the the ATF. Also I want to remind you all again that even a one time experiment such as this one (even if you are 12 years old and need a science fair project) can only legally be done by obtaining a permit through the ATF BEFORE you make Ethanol Fuel. I did not find out about the permit requirements until after my first batch because I watched too many You Tube videos so learn from my mistake. I do have a permit now, so I count it as a learning experience.
Now for some more End of the World considerations about distilling Ethanol Fuel. The process takes time and makes a stink. I found the smell noticeable at 20 feet and I can imagine it getting much worse if you are fermenting garbage because it is SHTF time. It might not be a good idea to have a still operating right next to your bug out location or biggest cache. Alcohol is, of course, flammable and Ethanol is particularly hard to see when lit unless it is mixed with Kerosene for example. It is fairly easy to separate your mash pot (which is on a heat source) from the Reflux chamber, unlike my quick and dirty example. This is recommended for safety reasons especially if you cannot watch your still while the Alcohol is being separated from the mash (but you should always watch your product run and have fire extinguishers on hand – I know- its pickle when you are dealing with the End of the World, but try to be as safe as possible under all circumstances, remember that alcohol vapor can explode and treat accordingly!). Fully off-grid Solar Stills could be engineered using mirrors, a Fresnel lens or a parabolic mirror but you will need to carefully consider temperature management. It would be fun to think through how to tackle that one!
I think I have covered all of the basics pretty well, and maybe a bit more than the 'basics' but these are the key points I feel preppers should be aware of regarding this alternative do-it-yourself Fuel Source and its capabilities. Incidentally, by reading this essay you now know a few key questions to ask someone else who might be making Ethanol Fuel or Spirits to see if they know what they are doing in case TSHTF, if they do not filter or polish for Spirits and have no idea about dehydrating the Alcohol for Fuel you know the quality will be lacking...which may lead to complications that would be otherwise avoidable.
Some of the very best resources I have found to help you dig deeper:
Robert Warren's Site on making your own fuel If you don't go to any other link – go to this one, it is the best!
Home Distillation of Alcohol for a terrific breakdown of different stills and Home Spirit production
ATF Permit (Form 5110.74)
ATF FAQ for Distilled Spirits - Don't do it! Read the penalties.
Mother Earth News Articles – Chapter 7 Distillation Process
Alcohol Can Be A Gas – Terrific video
Rainier Distillers – Excellent FAQ and source for Zeolite, Enzymes and Yeasts