May 2010

Running on Empty?

Tom Quinn’s unconventional idea of a microfuel station in every garage sounds dandy indeed—the devil, however, is in the details



Tom Quinn worries me. I’m interviewing the affable 55-year-old founder and chief executive of E-Fuel, and he’s smiling, and I’m smiling, and all the while I’m thinking, This guy is nuts. Innovation, like evolution, is a process whereby occasional and incremental success emerges out of a grinding narrative of failure. Quinn—a serial innovator, with the bank account to prove it—seems determined to skip the messy part.

His company represents a “disruptive technology” in the field of transportation energy. But from everything I know about the problem of energy and personal mobility, all the easy answers have been taken. I see some major holes in his plotline, and I wonder if it’s me or him who’s not getting it. And where,exactly, does the work of innovator end and salesman begin?

After making his bones in high-tech entrepreneurship—including the invention of the motion-sensing controller in the Wii handset—Quinn was seeking his next venture when, in 2006, he was seduced by the promise of ethanol, that most problematic of biofuels, the elixir vitae of Midwest corn interests and energy charlatans.

“I saw a speech Henry Ford gave in 1916, warning America not to go on fossil fuel,” Quinn says, pointing out that Ford’s Model T was designed to run on ethanol (and I note in my head, Not exactly). “In order to make a difference in the energy system, you can’t just do the components. You have to change the paradigm.”

Quinn’s big idea is the MicroFueler, a portable, home-size ethanol microrefinery consisting of a 250-gallon tank and a high-tech still and fuel pump that together are about the size of a conventional gas-station pump. The plan calls for E-Fuel distributors to collect organic waste from local sources and process it into a liquid feedstock, which would then be delivered to customers’ MicroFuelers. Ethanol produced with organic waste would seem more energy efficient than that made from corn, which requires huge inputs of fossil fuel (in the form of petroleum-based fertilizer), as well as unseemly amounts of water and arable land—see the whole food-versus-fuel debate. “Corn ethanol is stupid,” says Quinn. On that we’re agreed.

What kind of organic waste? This is where I see the invisible crazy imps dancing around Quinn’s head. “All kinds,” he says, “everything from out-of-date soda and wine to beer yeast to leaves and grass clippings.”

If only. To extract ethanol from leaves, grasses, agricultural waste and other dry biomass, you must break down the cellulose into sugar—typically with specially trained enzymes—in very large and complex refineries that economize scale. E-Fuel doesn’t have such a facility and so is missing a rather large piece of the cellulosic ethanol puzzle. If you put leaves into the MicroFueler tank, you’d get only wet leaves.

Quinn knows this, and he knows I know it, so why are we having this twigs-and-leaves talk? I grow worried.

He tells me his first love book-wise was a biography on Thomas Edison—fitting for a man disposed to far-fetched, big-return inventioneering. “I loved the movie where he was played by Mickey Rooney [Young Tom Edison]. I loved that he would create something that would add to life.” And yet Quinn takes a different approach than Edison, who laid siege to a problem with untold iterations and an army of exploitable young minds. In football terms, Edison played a grinding ground game, while Quinn is more likely to throw the Hail Mary rainbow spiral to the end zone on every down.

For now, Quinn and his Southern California distributor, Chris Ursitti, are collecting liquid waste from breweries, winemakers and the Sunny Delight company and processing it at a facility in Paso Robles. In the future, sources of liquid organic waste could include chemical plants, hospitals and bars. Quinn says one of his company’s breakthroughs was to create a national database of entities that would otherwise pay waste handlers to haul off this stuff.

Realistically, how many consumers want to stick it to the man badly enough to plop down $10,000 on a portable ethanol station?

The resulting feedstock for customers would be inherently rich in alcohol and high in sugar. This part of Quinn’s chemistry seems reasonable. High-sugar liquids require little care and feeding to ferment ethanol, and alcoholic-beverage waste would already have a high percentage of alcohol. The MicroFueler would probably make short work of such organic fuel. The only byproduct would be an unspecified amount of “stillage.”

Then there is the matter of scale. How much of this stuff is out there? Quinn says the U.S. disposes of 50 billion gallons of organic waste per year. Fifty billion gallons of bad fruit juice and old beer? Our annual beer production is only 6 billion gallons. Where are these rivers of easily fermented liquid biofuels? If this material is so gravid with potential energy, why aren’t companies exploiting it themselves? I grow more worried.

In on the ground floor of the Silicon Valley boom, Quinn became rich when he cashed out of Novell in the early ’80s. Success, he says, “is like a drug.”

His riches make it hard to dismiss him as an energy-snake-oil salesman. Quinn simply doesn’t need the money. He seems sincere in his environmentalism. “I’m worried about my kids,” he says. He also likes to invoke ethanol as a way to strike back at Big Oil.

Realistically, though, how many consumers want to stick it to the man badly enough to plop down $10,000 on a portable ethanol station? (A 50 percent federal tax credit is supposed to be available, but consult your accountant before you buy.) Meanwhile, the MicroFueler’s return on investment seems shaky. I won’t drag you through the arithmetic, but a driver using 750 gallons of MicroFueler-supplied E100 annually would not break even for about 20 years (assuming $3-per-gallon gas, which I grant is not a good longitudinal assumption). Quinn also has some truly wrongheaded ideas about ethanol in internal-combustion engines. Most troublesome is his blithe assertion that “all cars can run on ethanol.”

Yes, cars can run on a light blend of ethanol—such as the government-mandated 10 percent, or E10—but they have to be modified to cope with ethanol-rich fuel mixtures (so-called flex-fuel vehicles). And engine and fuel-system damage is not uncommon. High-ethanol fuel blends perform badly in cool, not even cold, weather. Don’t look for a MicroFueler at your parents’ house in Vermont.

Quinn’s other notion is that ethanol offers fuel economy—it doesn’t. Ethanol has 34 percent lower energy content per unit of volume than gasoline; consequently, E85-fueled cars’ mileage drops by about a third. E100, such as from the MicroFueler, can only perform worse.

Quinn likes to cite ethanol’s higher octane rating—which is true but irrelevant, unless you radically raise your car’s engine-compression ratio from 10:1 to, let’s say, 17:1. Here’s your wrench—go for it.

To the extent Quinn knows the downside of ethanol and is not saying, he’s a salesman. To the extent he thinks he’s right and a century of chemical and automotive engineering wrong, he’s only a product of his Silicon Valley upbringing, where the glamour of intuition—the road-to-Damascus light of innovation—paid off better than long hours making incremental improvements to the status quo, per Ford and Edison.

“You have to have an ego,” he says. “Ego protects you. Ego helps you sleep at night.”

DAN NEIL won a Pulitzer as automobile critic for the L.A. Times. He is currently driving similar coverage at the Wall Street Journal.

See Tom Quinn's open letter to Dan Neil, rebutting some of the writer's contentions