Ethanolics Anonymous?

Cindy Zimmerman

ISU Research There’s a saying in the ethanol world – “drink the best and burn the rest” – but a couple of Iowa State University researchers are out to turn that saying on its head.

ISU researchers Hans van Leeuwen and Jacek Koziel are working on a process to quickly and cheaply convert fuel ethanol into the purer alcohol used in cocktails – as well as in mouth washes and cough or cold remedies, according to an ISU press release.

Technically, 100 percent ethanol is drinkable – and inebriating (see previous post). That’s why the fuel is denatured, or rendered unfit for human consumption, before it leaves the plant, so you can’t pump ethanol out of the gas tank and drink it.

However, even before denaturing, the ethanol being produced for fuel is not pure enough for beverage or medicinal use. According to Van Leeuwen, the fuel produced by those plants and the alcohol produced for the beverage industry are very similar. But alcohol produced for fuel isn’t made with the same care and purity as alcohol for consumption, he said. The multiple distillations required to make food-grade alcohol raise production costs to about 50 cents per gallon more than it costs to produce fuel ethanol.

Van Leeuwen said the researchers are working to develop technologies that can purify fuel into beverage alcohol for less than an additional penny per gallon.

The project is partially supported by a $79,900 grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund and at least “one large producer of ethanol and food-grade alcohol interested in the research project.”

Ethanol, Research