Homebrew Gel Fuel Keeps The Steam Coming, Legally

All it takes is one knucklehead to go and do something stupid to screw things up for everyone. We’re not exactly sure who the knucklehead is behind the recent ban on hexamine fuel tablets, but given that it’s now proscribed in the UK under the “Control of Poisons and Explosives Precursors Regulations 2023,” we expect that that story is a doozy.

So what’s hexamine, and why should we care if it’s banned? As [Markus Bindhammer] explains, hexamine is a solid fuel commonly used to power model steam engines, among myriad other uses. Its ban leaves a bit of a hole in the model steam community, which [Markus] seeks to fill with this quick and easy gel fuel chemistry project.

The “California Snowball” is a homebrew version of what’s in those solid fuel cans you see heating chafing pans at catered events, with one common brand being Sterno. [Markus] used a saturated solution of calcium acetate (6 g in 50 ml of water) and added that to 150 ml of ethanol; commercial formulations usually use methanol to prevent anyone from drinking the stuff, with varying degrees of success. The calcium acetate forms a gel that looks like whipped cream and traps the ethanol inside. The gel can be easily scooped up and spread around, and burns with a clean, smokeless flame.

It may not exactly be a “plug and play” replacement for hexamine tablets, but one does what one can. And if there’s one thing we can celebrate about model steam engineers, it’s their persistence. We got a bunch of them together last year for a Hack Chat with [Quinn Dunki], and their passion for making things move with steam was pretty impressive.

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Wipe On, Wipe Off: Make Your Own Rain Repellent

Once upon a time, we drove an old six-volt VW Beetle. One sad day, the wiper motor went out, and as this happened before the Internet heyday, there were no readily-available parts around that we were aware of. After briefly considering rubbing a potato on the windshield as prescribed by the old wives’ tale, we were quite grateful for the invention of Rain-X — a water-repelling chemical treatment for car windshields.

Boy would we have loved to know how to make it ourselves from readily-available chemicals. As you’ll see in the video below, it doesn’t take much more than dimethicone, sulfuric acid, and a cocktail of alcohols. [Terry] starts with dimethicone, which he activates with a healthy dose of concentrated sulfuric acid, done under the safety of an exhaust hood. After about 20 minutes on the stir mix-a-lot plate, [Terry] added ethanol and isopropyl alcohols. Finally, it was off to the garage with the mixture in a spray bottle.

After meticulously cleaning the windshield, [Terry] applied the solution in small areas and rubbed it in with a towel to create a thin bond between it and the glass. This creates a perfectly normal haze, which can be removed after a bit with a clean towel.

If you just love listening to your windshield wipers, at least make them move to a beat.

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the full charger with gas tank and engine

Charge Your Apple With Apples

When you think of ethanol, you might think of it as a type of alcohol, not alcohol itself. However, in reality, it is the primary ingredient in adult beverages. Which means humans have gotten quite good at making it, as we’ve been doing for a long time. With this in mind, [Sam Barker] decided to make ethanol out of apples to power a small engine to charge his phone.

The steps for making pure ethanol is quite similar to making alcoholic cider. A friend of [Sam’s] had an orchard and a surplus of apples, so [Sam] boiled them down and stored the mush in jugs. He added activated dry yeast to start the fermentation process. A dry lock allowed the CO2 gas that was being created to escape. Over a few weeks, the yeast converted all the sugar into ethanol and gas. In the meantime, [Sam] sourced a chainsaw and adapted the engine to run on ethanol, as ethanol needs to run richer than gasoline. The video below the break tells the story.

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Will A Kettle Filled With Alcohol Boil Dry?

The average home kettle is set up to switch off automatically when water reaches its boiling point. But would a kettle filled with alcohol, which has a significantly lower boiling point, actually turn off? [Steve Mould] set out to find out.

The prediction was that a kettle full of 40% strength vodka would boil dry, as the vodka would evaporate before it actually got to a hot enough temperature to cause the kettle’s cutout mechanism to kick in. The experiment was done outside to minimise the dangers from the ethanol vapor. As it turns out, the vapor from the boiling vodka is about 80% ethanol and just 20% water, so eventually the mixture left in the kettle is mostly water and it boils hot enough to trigger the cutout mechanism.

However, the experiment doesn’t end there. Trying again with 99% ethanol, when the fluid started boiling, the kettle switched off even more quickly. So what’s going on?

The kettle in question uses a bimetallic strip, which trips the switch off in the base of the kettle when it gets too hot. There’s also a tube inside the kettle that carries vapor from the internal cavity and lets it pass over the bimetallic strip. When the liquid inside the kettle boils, it forces hot vapor through the tube, out of the kettle and over the bimetallic strip.

This strip triggers at a temperature significantly lower than the boiling point of water; indeed, as long as the liquid in the kettle is fairly hot and is boiling enough to force vapor out the tube, the kettle will switch off. [Steve] points out that it’s a good mechanism, as this mechanism allows the kettle to respond to boiling itself, rather than the arbitrary 100 C point which water technically only boils at when one is at sea level.

It’s an interesting look at a safety system baked into something many of us use every day without even thinking. It’s not the first time we’ve seen [Steve] dive deep into the world of tea-making apparatus, either. Video after the break.

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How To Get Into Cars: E85 Fuel

If you’ve spent any time around the modified car scene in the last few years, you’ve probably heard about E85. Maybe you’ve even noticed a sweet smell emanating from the pitlane, or heard people cracking jokes about “corn juice.”

The blended fuel, which combines alcohol and traditional gasoline, can have significant performance benefits if used properly. Today, we’ll explore what those are, and how you can set your ride up to run on E85.

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That’s Not Beer! A Biofuel Fermentation Controller Project


Any home brewer will recognize the setup pictured above as a temperature controlled fermentation chamber. They wouldn’t be wrong either. But you’re not going to drink what results. This project is aimed at providing a temperature controlled environment for fermenting biofuel.

[Benjamin Havey] and [Michael Abed] built the controller as their final project in his microprocessor class. The idea is to monitor and control the mini-refrigerator so that the strain of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae yeast produce as much ethanol as possible. An MSP430 microcontroller was used. It monitors a thermister with its analog to digital converter and drives a solid state relay to switch mains power to the fridge. At 41 degrees Fahrenheit this is down below what most lager yeasts want (which is usually in the low fifties). But the nice thing about using a microcontroller is you can set a schedule with different stages if you find a program that gives the yeast the best environment but requires more than one temperature level.

Who knew all that beer making was getting you ready to produce alternative fuels?