Hackaday Prize Entry: An Automated Still

We’ve seen plenty of Arduinofied home brewing setups, and kegerators are a fairly standard project for the types of people we hang out with. What we haven’t seen a lot of are home stills. There are unfortunate reasons for this. First off, distilling alcohol is illegal in a few parts of the world if you don’t have a license or tax stamp. Second, vapors explode. Third, wood alcohol is poison.

That said, [TegwynTwmffat’s] project for the Hackaday Prize is the coolest and the safest alcohol still we’ve ever seen. It’s fully automated, small, safe, and there are video game noises sprinkled about the user interface.

The boiler for this nano still is constructed out of a keg, but that was just the starting point. [Tegwyn] removed the bottom of the keg, installed a new bottom, and coupled that bottom to a hot plate. The top of the keg was modified to accept a 2 inch brass fitting that was beautifully welded into place. From the boiler, the alcohol vapor goes into an air-cooled condenser, and all this equipment is housed in a welded steel frame. You couldn’t make something out of aluminum extrusion that looks this good.

The electronics include a hydrometer, an electronic alcohol vapor sensor, several temperature¬†sensors an Arduino Mega, and a GPRS module for controlling the entire setup over the Internet. At various points in the distillation¬†process, the Arduino plays audio files of a robot voice saying what’s going on in the still.

Right now, [Tegwyn] is distilling barley wine and cider into alcohol. The volume produced isn’t much — the keg is only 10 liters, after all — but this is one of the best stills we’ve ever seen. You can check out a video of [Tegwyn] walking us through the project below.

27 thoughts on “Hackaday Prize Entry: An Automated Still

        1. You are more than likely making assumptions about the tubing. You can’t judge by look alone as there are both food safe and non food safe types of tubing that match the look of both the yellow and translucent tubing in the pictures.

  1. IIRC, in the USA, adults (or each household) are allowed to distill up to 11 quarts,(fifths?) and ferment up to 200 quarts of wine each year without a tax stamp (for one’s own consumption, not sales).

    1. Distillation is illegal in a lot of areas, but fermenting, it’s 100 gallons a year for a single-person household, 200 gallons for 2+ adults.

      Sec. 25.205
      Production

      (a) Any adult may produce beer, without payment of tax, for personal or family use and not for sale. An adult is any individual who is 18 years of age or older. If the locality in which the household is located requires a greater minimum age for the sale of beer to individuals, the adult shall be that age before commencing the production of beer. This exemption does not authorize the production of beer for use contrary to state or local law.

      (b) The production of beer per household, without payment of tax, for personal or family use may not exceed:

      (1) 200 gallons per calendar year if there are two or more adults residing in the household, or (2) 100 gallons per calendar year if there is only one adult residing in the household.
      (c) Partnerships except as provided in Sec. 25.207, corporations or associations may not produce beer, without payment of tax, for personal or family use.

      (Sec. 201, Pub. L. 85-859, 72 Stat. 1334, as amended (26 U.S.C. 5053))

    2. Nope.
      Distillation is illegal in the US for any amount without a tax ID from the TTB (formerly part of the ATF). You can’t even distill fuel alcohol without a fuel plant permit.

    3. Here in the state of NE, it is legal to [without any licensing] produce any type of consumable alcohol using any method available so long as:

      100 gallons per year per person
      Not used in any form of trade
      Also subject to interstate transport regulations. That pretty much means you aren’t supposed to bring it out of state.

        1. Agree, my mother lived in an area with high sodium content in the drinking water. She was able to purchase a water still so she could drink and cook with water that wouldn’t make her high blood pressure worse.
          But as mentioned in previous comments, there is a difference between distilling alcohol from a water/alcohol solution and distilling water.

      1. Sure, why don’t we measure it based on your ability to not have your info rifled through, or not get executed without trial by police, or get treament for major illness without emptying your savings account, or study a needed trade without going into indentured servitude, or as an inverse of gini index, or to publish useful research that is inconvenient for large corporations.

        Get me out of here.

    1. Yep. I guess he forgot the off button. It’s louder than the explaination at times.
      He’s not alone in doing this. I guess if you’ve been listening to it all the way through the project you tune out.

  2. I don’t understand why the use of copper pots and soldered pipes in these modern times.
    Just get 3 food graded plastic buckets of different sizes and an portable electrical water heater.
    -Have the heater and “wash”-liquid in the smallest bucket.
    -Place the smallest bucket in the biggest bucket
    -Place the middle bucket upside down over the smallest bucket.

    The middle bucket placed upside down will capture the vapor and condense it into the biggest bucket.
    Since alcohol have a lower boiling point then water, you don’t have to go full bananas on the heating and plastic have no problem with those temperatures. And since you are not boiling off the water, you don’t need any precise temperature control or fire safety systems. Just a timer and some practice.

    1. distillation of drinkable alcohol is quite a bit more involved, you have to separate the ethanol from the methanol and any other esters you want to avoid, in general that requires a way of tapping the condensate as it flows out, or you would instantly mix your products again.

    2. I don’t even know where to start on why this won’t work the way you’re thinking.
      To get the alcohol out and not some of the other oils that give it an off taste, you do need precise temperature control. It also allows you to make a consistent and predictable product. Knowing what temperature the system is at when the alcohol condenses allows you to ditch the heads that will make you sick.
      Unless you have the buckets sealed, the alcohol vapor will escape, so now you’re working with pressurized buckets. I don’t know where to buy buckets rated for any sort of internal pressure, let alone ones you can keep the lid from popping off. If you’re keeping the buckets sealed, you will eventually heat up all the buckets inside and it will take forever to condense out the alcohol, that’s why they use a condenser coil (worm) cooled down usually with water.
      Copper removes some of the bad elements from the distilled liquid, that’s why it’s still used at large distilleries. Also, it allows for a pressure outlet so the whole thing doesn’t explode.
      Finally, you are not boiling the water off, but you are creating alcohol vapor, which IS flammable, so fire safety systems are kind of important.

      1. Re: sealing, his concept would certainly lose some vapor at the beginning, but once it builds up enough liquid, the liquid forms a seal. You would put weights on the inverted bucket to hold it down, and once the distillate in the outer bucket is high enough to overcome the pressure differential, it’s sealed. For subsequent batches, put some of the previous batch in to start with, forming the seal from the get-go.

        It really doesn’t look like a horrible plan for simply increasing the concentration of an already pure ethanol/water mixture (just needs a way to cool the inverted and/or outer buckets — a fourth bucket full of ice, maybe? Or just run the whole thing inside a freezer), but that’s a toy problem compared to distilling drinkable liquor.

        Obvious optimization — a lot of vapor will condense on the ceiling of the inverted bucket, where most of it will tend to fall back into the inner bucket. Tip it (either the inverted bucket or the whole apparatus) at enough angle that the drops run across the ceiling and down the wall, rather than dripping freely. (Now you need even more fluid to form a seal — TANSTAAFL.)

  3. Granted automating the system may work, when making grain alcohol like whiskey it really does come down to experience in tasting the product and deciding how much tails etc to put into the final product. Its as much an art as it is a science.

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