Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ethanol Chronicles - Part II

Last week, as my bottle of booze ran out, I decided to commit myself to finding out exactly what was needed to get a permit for pure ethanol. The 94% grain alcohol seemed to work much better at dissolving shellac than the denatured alcohol I am using, so I figured it was worth the effort.

The first thing I did was investigate what was required from the State of Vermont. After a couple of days of internet searches and phone calls, I finally talked to the licensing technician who sent me an application and I figured I was on my way, no fees needed, all I had to do was fill out the form and promise not to drink the stuff -- SCORE!

Only there was one problem - to fill out the form I needed to find a source for ethanol. So I started another series of internet searches looking for one. I've done this before and given up because the companies that supply this stuff clearly don't want to deal with "Joe I-need-some-booze Public." After over an hour of more internet searches and scanning through dozens of pages, I found a phone number of a company to call. I don't remember the company, and it is just as well that I don't supply a link, because when I asked about purchasing pure ethanol, they asked how much and I, modestly hoped that 5 gallons would be enough. The voice on the other end said, "Oh, we only sell by the megaton." I wonder how many train cars are needed for one mega-ton? If my math is any good, a megaton is somewhere around 225,000 gallons of ethanol; so clearly, I was a few orders of magnitude off. Fortunately, the man on the other end offered me a number for someone at ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) and thus started my journey down the supply chain of ethanol production.

Unsurprisingly, ADM was also unwilling to sell me 5 gallons of ethanol but the person I talked with was kind enough to mention two companies that they supply and suggested I talk with them. One of the businesses was a German company and I couldn't find a US telephone number for, but the other one was Univar. After searching a while on their website I found a phone number, which led to conversations with people at HQ, Albany, Cleveland, and then two more people in Albany. Finally, I was getting close. He told me that they could sell me 5 gallons but that their supplier was "Farmco" in Brookfield, CT and that I should talk with them.

This lead was initially confusing because he didn't give me a phone number and I couldn't find a "Farmco" in Brookfield. After a few internet searches I talked to a couple of other Farmco's that had no idea what I was talking about. Then I looked through the business directory in Brookfield and found Pharmco - unfortunately, this is where things started getting complicated.

I am amazed that this company never came up in any of my earlier searches because this is clearly the place to go if you need a supplier of pure or denatured ethanol in the US. Unfortunately, however, there are more issues involved with getting the stuff than I imagined. Clearly, if you have access to reasonably priced grain alcohol, that is a better use of your time. After numerous iterations of talking to Pharmco and the feds at TTB - Alcohol and Tabacco Tax and Trade Bureau (formally with ATF - alcohol, tobacco, and firearms) here is what I learned about purchasing the stuff:

- It is possible to buy 5 gallons of 200 proof ethanol from Pharmco but without an excise tax exemption, the price essentially doubles (approx $127 for 5 gallons plus $108 federal tax), making it no longer cost effective to purchase.
- The excise tax rate exemption is only available for schools, hospitols, labs, and the like - I clearly wouldn't qualify.
- Pharmco supplies very high quality denatured alcohol and looking through their list of formulas, I found that they have 95% 200 proof ethanol with 5% isopropanol (rubbing alcohol). You can't drink it but it is probably the most minimally hazardous alcohol to use after pure ethanol.
- The price for 5 gallons is around $115 but the minimum sale from Pharmco is $150. However, in order to buy more than 5 gallons (to save the $35 fee) you need a federal permit, which requires tracking and yearly inventory forms.
- Not getting a federal permit would seem to be the way to go except that Pharmco's minimum charge for non-permitted customers is $250.
- The permitting process can take up to 60 days.

So now I'm in the process of filling out the forms so I can purchase 10 gallons of high quality denatured alcohol. It should be enough for a few years, maybe I can cancel the permits after making the purchase, but then, maybe the feds will come knocking if I do. We'll see.


  1. i laughed out loud...a MEGATON. good grief. this is an exhausting search. maybe you should contact someone in the alabama backwoods. good luck with all that paperwork.

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  3. You're right, finding a moonshiner would be a lot easier. There probably are a few here in the hills of VT but not really sure how to find them. Maybe I should put a call out on Craig's List.

  4. Due to the fundamental chemical properties of ethanol and water, ethanol cannot be distilled to less than 5% water by any method available to a moonshiner (or a legitimate beverage distiller). A mixture of 95% ethanol and 5% water forms what chemists call an "azeotrope" -- if you try to distill it, you get the same thing you started with -- 95% ethanol and 5% water.

    For beverage making, there's no point to trying to remove all the water -- you have to add it back anyway, to make anything anyone with half a brain would want to drink.

    To get 100% pure anhydrous alcohol requires very sophisticated chemical processing. First you must remove the water by means other than conventional distillation, then you must remove the impurities added by that processing.