Foods That Give You Fuel: Racing on Bioethanol

From your fridge to your gas tank.

Michael FrankwriterYear ProductionsphotographerAbandon Visualphotographer

The exhaust fumes coming from Oregon-based Matt Coffman's 25-year-old, 860-hp Nissan 240SX drift car smell like brownies and maple syrup. Last year, Coffman's team started using ethanol instead of gasoline—not the widely used corn-based kind, but bioethanol from food waste.

The change came about because a store near the team's shop, Summit Foods, had an expensive problem. Summit sold dried-fruit confections to candymakers, but the disposal of excess sugary liquid, a side effect of drying fruit, cost them upward of $30,000 a month. "You can't just pour that down the drain," says David McCoy, head of Summit's newly formed fuels subdivision, Summit Natural Energy, which
turns leftover sugar and other carbohydrates into bioethanol.

Excess waste is an expensive, industry-wide issue that affects podunk mom 'n' pop shops, McDonald's, and everyone in between. Once Summit figured out what to do with its by-product, it started taking in expired items being offloaded by other nearby manufacturers and stores. "Pie filling, outdated syrups, doughnut mix—those kinds of things," McCoy says. Americans waste 40 percent of all the food we produce—36 million tons in 2012, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Having plenty of waste to work with, Summit's new business saw great success, so much so that the company spun off a performance-fuel division. Thunderbolt Racing now supplies bioethanol fuel to some 30 race teams, including Coffman Racing.

The yeast-driven fermentation process breaks one part sugar, or glucose (C6H12O6), into two parts ethanol (CH3CH2OH) and two parts carbon dioxide (CO2).

"It's long been part of our philosophy to be environmentally conscious, but motorsports is inherently environmentally impactful," says the team's manager, Jeff Mailley. "What these guys do to reduce waste and make a stable, consistent fuel attracted us. There's lower consumption and emissions, and we saw a noticeable power bump after we changed over."

Your car won't run on bioethanol anytime soon, if ever, but the fuel could become more common in motorsports applications. You'll be watching a car drifting or doing a burnout, and you'll catch a whiff of last week's lunch.

How to Make Bioethanol

The fermentation process uses the same yeast that helps produce bread and beer. Microorganisms eat sugar and excrete ethanol. Since these little guys can't process sugar's calories very well, the ethanol is chemically rich in energy. The conversion from sugar to bioethanol is straightforward, but sources of sugar can be hard to find. Starches such as corn are relatively easy to come by and convert into sugars, but bioethanol's future could also lie with waste biomass, which uses cellulose from wood or grass clippings, or small algae ponds, which produce huge amounts of carbohydrates that can be converted.

Why you'll (probably) Never Pump Bioethanol

The big problem with food as a fuel source is, as any bachelor knows, it rots if you try to store it too long. Its energy value degrades during this process, says Robert C. Brown, director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State University. Add to that the fact that bioethanol is only about 70 percent as energy dense as unleaded gas and that it's bulkier than crude oil, which translates to higher transportation costs. But Brown hasn't given up hope: "It took the petroleum industry a century to get to a point where we have a multitrillion-dollar system to make and distribute gasoline."

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