How to Distill Alcohol, part 3: How to Make Methanol

[error]DISCLAIMER: The following is highly dangerous or illegal and it is not recommended to be used under any circumstances, except zombies.[/error]

Methanol, or methyl alcohol, can be used primarily as a fuel source or feedstock (a chemical used to make another chemical).  For our purposes, we can either use it to fuel cars, trucks generators, etc. or to create biodiesel (both very useful in a post-Apocalyptic world).  In this part of our series on alcohol distillation, we discuss how to use your still to produce methanol.

Methanol is more commonly referred to as wood alcohol because, until breakthroughs in modern chemistry, the only way to produce it was by extracting it from wood.  You shouldn’t drink methanol EVER.  Not only does it taste bad, but it can kill you.  In fact, methanol is used to denature ethanol products, rendering them undrinkable by making you violently ill when you drink even that small of an amount.  If you want to make drinkable alcohol read about it here.

Producing methanol is a much less involved process than producing ethanol.  Put wood chunks or shavings (or paper) into the bottom of your cooking vessel and add enough water to cover the wood.  Heat the cooking vessel to around 78C and wait as the methanol vaporizes from the wood and out the condenser coil and into your storage container.

If you are making both ethanol and methanol make sure you label them.  I can’t stress to you how important it is that you don’t drink methanol.

How to Distill Alcohol, Part 2: How to Make Ethanol

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In Part 1 of this article series, I showed you how to make your still.  In this part, we go over the specfics of how to make actual ethanol, or ethyl alcohol.

Ethanol is most commonly known for being the ingestable alcohol in liquor, but there are plenty of uses for it aside from drinking.  First and foremost, everybody likes alcohol, so if you can make your own, you have a valuable commodity to trade with other people.  Beyond that, it is a disinfectant, an antiseptic, a solvent, it is flammable so it can be used as a fire source or a fuel source, and interestingly enough – it can be used to treat alcohol poisoning from other, more toxic, types of alcohol.

Fermentation

Fundamentally, all that distillation does is seperate the alcohol from everything else.  So in order to distill ethanol, we need to create something that contains ethanol.  You need to create a mash using some sort of starchy substance.  Pretty much any type of grain will do, corn is a good starch source and is probably the most prolific option.  Rice will also work, but may be in short supply.  The fermentation process for distilling alcohol is very similar to that of making beer but has more leeway, since you don’t really care about the flavor that the mash itself develops.

Your first step is to heat up a volume of water at a ratio of 3 liters of water to 1 kilogram of starch source to around 65-70C.  Add your starch source to the water and maintain temperature for around an hour or so.  Larger quantities will take longer to get to temperature and longer to drop temperature, it’s not unheard of for home distillers to let the mash sit for days before proceeding.  What this does is convert the starches in your starch source into fermentable sugars (mono- and disaccharides).  Let it cool to a temperature no greater than 27C (the maximum tolerable temperature for most yeast) then add 0.5kg of yeast per 200 liters of mash.  You can also add table sugar at this time to aid in fermentation, but it isn’t terribly necessary.  Let the mash sit for around 10 days to ferment.  A rough indicator that fermentation is done is when the mash stops bubbling.  Fermentation continues passed this point, but unless you have equipment like a hydrometer available to test the specific gravity of the mash, no bubbles is a good enough indicator.

Distillation

First, let me clue you in on how dangerous this part of the procedure is.  You are playing with alcohol, a highly flammable substance, over an open flame.  If there is a leak anywhere in your system, it will literally go up in flames.  Which means you could just as easily go up in flames.  Add the fact that you are working with a closed system, you are essentially pressure cooking a flammable substance.  If your system isn’t balanced properly, pressure will build up inside your cooking vessel and eventually cause it to explode.  You are basically standing next to a bomb for several hours, if not days.  Be vigilant or your still could rain fiery death on you at incredible rates of speed.

If you didn’t ferment your mash in your cooking vessel, place it there now.  Bring your mash up to a temperature of around 79C and maintain tht temperature for the remainder of the process.  As described in part 1, you are keeping a temperature that allows the ethanol to vaporize without any of the rest of the mash vaporizing as well (for the most part).  The alcohol vapor then escapes through the condenser and is cooled down to liquid form before exiting into your storage container.  If you intend any of this to be drank, you’ll want to seperate the first few ounces from the rest of it because this first bit generally contains all kinds of impurities and all-around nastiness.

That’s it!  That’s how to make ethanol.  It’s a ridiculously simple method, but incredibly dangerous if you aren’t paying attention.

How to Distill Alcohol, Part 1: How to Make a Still

[error]DISCLAIMER: The following is highly dangerous or illegal and it is not recommended to be used under any circumstances, except zombies.[/error]

Generally, when people think of a still, they think of liquor or moonshine.  While being able to make these items in a post-Apocalyptic world can make things easier for you.  A still can be used to make other products as well (all alcohol related, but more useful than drinking).

Basically, a still is just a sealed cooking vessel with an outlet pipe that allows the alcohol to cool.  Some stills get more elaborate than this, but they all follow a similar premise.

  1. Put a substance containing alcohol into the vessel.
  2. Heat it up such that the alcohol evaporates, but nothing else does.
  3. Wait for evaporated alcohol to exit vessel via tubing.
  4. Alcohol goes through tube and cools off, trickling into a recepticle for storage.

Cooking Vessel

Keg Still and Copper Condenser

The most important thing to consider when creating your cooking vessel is size.  Remember that you’re going to be cooking off a lot of stuff in order to get a small percentage of final product.  Think of ethanol production: Your typical mash will be between 5% and 10% ABV, so you generally won’t get more than 10% of your original volume as a final volume (depending on your still efficiency).  Basically, the bigger the better.  As far as material goes, anything that can transfer heat is good, copper being one of the best things.  You also want to make sure that as much surface area as possible  is exposed to heat.  The faster to temperature, the faster you’re done.

Condenser Tube/Coil

The condenser coil is what allows the alcohol vapor to cool down and convert back into a liquid before dissipating in the open air.  The thing to consider with your tube or coil is that you need to get the temperature of the contents of the tube down to near room temperature before it leaves the tube.  So you either need an incredibly long tube (which is where a coil comes in handy), or an external means of cooling the alcohol down (e.g. ice, cool water, etc).  Either way, this needs to be considered when scrounging or making your condenser.   As with the cooking vessel, if you have access to a material that easily dissipates heat, use it.

The Procedure

First, put your alcohol bearing material in the cooking vessel.  If you are fermenting something, you might as well do it in this vessel, just make sure you don’t completely close it off or else pressure will build up.  Next, close off the vessel and attach your condenser.  Light a fire underneath the cooking vessel.  Maintain the temperature of your material as close to the boiling point of the type of alcohol you are extracting.  Ethyl alcohol boils at ~80C and methyl alcohol at ~65C.  The amount of alcohol you can distill is completely subjective.  Basically, you’ll start out getting barely a trickle of alcohol out of your condenser, then you get a steady stream of it, then a trickle again.  The trickle at the end will be less concentrated than the rest of your batch, but viable nonetheless.