Space experts look into an earthly power problem

Energy experts at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are taking their first small step toward a more efficient way to produce water-free alcohol to run automobiles. If they reach their goal, the method could eventually bring the wholesale cost of the fuel down to aroun $1 a gallon.

"It could be possible that the United States could be close to fuel independence within a few years," says Wally Boggs, energy projects engineer for design engineering at Kennedy Space Center.

Mr. Boggs emphasizes that the independence potential is for earthly motor vehicles, not spacecraft. However, he reports that the biomass program is highly experimental and is being pursued on a very small and vulnerable scale. In other words, funding is not guaranteed to carry the pilot research program to maximum success or production.

Nonetheless, Mr. Boggs says this is the first biomass application at the spaceport and, to his knowledge, the first manufacturing of dry alcohol by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"It is little out of the ordinary for NASA technology," he goes on, adding: "The [Kennedy Space Center] does well in solar photovoltaics, solar thermal heat transfer, windmills, and so on. But we feel it has a responsibility to look into -- at least to some degree -- alcohol fuel production.

"Specifically, we are looking at energy input load to see what we can do to lower the process energy requirements so that we don't spend so much energy to make energy in a more convenient form."

The experimental program was authorized late last year, but the $20,000 allocation from NASA did not arrive until June. However, using some in-house money and spare glassware, space center energy experts began preliminary work on the project in January.

The allocation, which Mr. Boggs indicates could be enlarged, seeded the three-year program to study "biomass energy alternatives, not just alcohol."

The program could orient itself more toward methane production or using the alcohol for gasohol. Currently, the small still and distillation column are assembled and spaceport workers are cleaning out a building with the goal of making the project operational by the end of the November.

In early December the General Services Administration is to deliver an alcohol-burning car to Kennedy Space Center. Mr. Boggs says that the GSA, which maintains the spaceport vehicle fleet, already has one such car in operation. "We hope to make our own alcohol to operate that automobile," he asserts. "That is the extent of what we would want to do right now."

The test still is designed to produce 20 gallons of water-free alcohol a day. Mr. Boggs says the goal is not to produce high-quality alcohol, but to produce it more efficiently. Several methods already have been scrapped.

If the project survives its infancy and matures into a production rather than a research operation, the power source could be either solar heat or waste heat from an incinerator.

For the experiments, the space center engineers are using molasses, but they have planted some cassava as well to see how the tropical American plant grows. Also, they are considering sugar cane.

In addition to financing, there are many other "ifs" in the project.

If the mechanical water-extraction process pans out, if sugar cane and cassava can be successfully harvested at the space center, and if the size of the still is enlarged by a factor of 20, the resulting supply of alcohol could satisfy about 10 percent of the needs of the space center's automotive fleet.

For now that sounds like a lot of "ifs." But should the nonpriority project survive in the budget, it is likely that the space center's talent can rapidly surmount those "ifs."

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