By scaling down an old concept, some people are not only making the family-size farm and ranch energy-independent, they're also obtaining valuable byproducts.
These byproducts are the keys to success of alcohol-energy systems, says Gordon Harding, manager of the Endless Energy division of Polson Stove Shop Inc. , the locally owned small business that's leading the way in research in western Montana for alternative energy sources.
Mr. Harding admits there's no big advantage in converting from gas or diesel fuel to alcohol just for the fuel alone. But he points out that byproducts and their uses added in, it's a whole new ball game.
''White wheat bringing $3.36 a bushel on today's market carries an economic value of $8.40 per bushel when converted to alcohol fuel and feed supplements,'' Harding asserts.
At least three byproducts can be derived from the process. They include a protein-rich livestock feed supplement, a less-nutritious but highly practical feed extender known as thin stillage, and a promising blending flour that may hold the key to helping meet nutrition requirements in food-short parts of the world.
The most widely used byproducts now are the livestock feed supplements. Solids extracted from the cooking process are removed and mixed into a feed, Harding explains. One common cattle-feed mixture is dry grain, mash from the alcohol still, straw, a feed extender, and additives.
Jim Miller, chief of research and development for Endless Energy, feeds his pigs a mixture of two parts dry grain (a barley and corn mix) to one part mash and one part pig starter. Thin stillage is added as needed.
In Iowa, a feed has been developed from the basic mixture used by some Montana cattle feeders but substituting another waste material, chopped corncobs , for straw.
Adding to economic value is the fact that any number of source materials - spoiled beets, rotten potatoes, cull cherries, and the like - can be used to produce alcohol fuel. Such complete utilization of crops does not deprive anyone of any food, Harding claims.
People, in fact, are already eating flour milled from byproducts of distillation. This is a protein-rich blending flour, called by some ''Renewed Grain'' and by others ''spent wheat,'' which can be used to stretch the family food budget on farm or ranch. And, because it can be blended into native diets, it may serve a growing worldwide demand in the years ahead.
Renewed Grain, Harding says, is milled from solids extracted after the cooking process. Pound for pound, he claims, it has ''two to three times more protein and fiber than does regular white flour found on grocery-store shelves.''
The potential for human food excites the Montanan, who explains that most of the world already has plenty of starch. The need is for protein and fibers.
While not yet a factor in feeding famine-stricken areas, the seeds of the concept have been planted. Protein Alpha Inc., of Rupert, Idaho, contracts for spent wheat flour. Of course, it must meet Department of Agriculture standards for human consumption.
To demonstrate how distillation-derived flour can be worked easily into family food programs, a group of Montana women toured Washington as well as some state capitals, explaining to legislators how food can be obtained from fuel. The women are members of Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE). Equipped with a portable six-quart still and jar of mash, they produced, and served, platters of cookies, brownies, spice cakes, and buns made from Renewed Grain. They even registered the label, Renewed Grain, with the trademark office.
Designed strictly for the small farm and ranch, Endless Energy stills are produced in two sizes - for 24 gallon-a-day output and for 48 gallons a day. The cost is between $14,000 and $15,000 for the smaller size, and up to $17,000 for the larger system.
Dean Knutson, president of Polson Stove Shop, Inc., and the Small Business Administration's selection for Montana's 1980 ''businessman of the year award,'' has no doubt about the practicality of converting to alcohol fuel on farms and ranches.
But, he says, the biggest obstacle is tradition. Human habit is hard to change.