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Maple Motoring

Maple Sugar Rush


Published April 14, 2010 at 7:19 a.m.

On December 6, 1911, Brattleboro grocer G.O. Abbott struck a damning blow to an oil industry recently hobbled by the federal dissolution of the Standard Oil Company. It seems Mr. Abbott — who, the New York Times helpfully noted, “has an auto” — drove his car with maple syrup in the oil tank instead of motor oil.

Not that old Abbott intended to tweak the noses of the oil tycoons. According to the Times account, he kept his spare motor oil in a maple syrup can, and when his mechanic changed his oil, he got the cans mixed up.

The car ran “smoothly and sweetly” for 20 miles before anything went wrong. “Then, after coasting down a grade with the clutch thrown out, the motor cooled and the syrup crystallized on the piston,” the Times continues. “Mr. Abbott says if he had kept the engine running he would have finished the run on syrup without trouble.” If you don’t consider clogged oil lines a problem, that is.

While syrup as oil might make for a sticky situation under the hood, Scott Gordon, a chemist and founder of Green Technologies, a biofuel producer in Winooski, says it’s not a horrible idea. Vermont’s largest export isn’t an ideal choice to keep a car’s moving parts running smoothly, he notes, but it could work as a lubricant. “Putting maple syrup in for oil might be the one place you could get away with it, because oil is already full of crap,” Gordon says.

This got us thinking about other potential non-food-related uses of maple syrup. Before exploring them, however, we’ll need to assume cost isn’t an issue. This year, maple syrup costs between $50 and $60 a gallon, compared with a gallon of gasoline at $2.30. An entire barrel of crude oil hovers around $85. So, unless you bathe in a tub full of hundred-dollar bills, the following suggestions will have to remain theoretical.

In an email, Gordon rattles off a whole list of new maple applications: “If you were trapped on a desert island with maple syrup, you could feed your horse on it; ferment it and distill it to make ethanol (which will burn); eat it yourself and push the car; generate a very small voltage with it through osmotic pressure or do a small amount of mechanical work through osmotic pressure (in relation to normal water … basically reversing the energy put in to remove the water).” That’s assuming you somehow transported your horse and car to the desert island to begin with.

Gordon also offers that, once you got off that desert island, you could pour straight maple syrup into someone’s gas tank to seize their engine and clog the injectors. A “classic prank,” he writes.

Intrigued by the less actionable possibility of making ethanol from syrup, I go down to Gordon’s biofuel lab to learn more. Since Gordon is a serious scientist, he balks at the notion of making fuel in a way that is economically prohibitive, unsustainable and just plain stupid. A maple-fueled vehicle might be the most expensive way to get from here to there, but he humors me.

To make ethanol, he explains, you’d first have to throw some yeast in the syrup. Once it fermented, you’d need to distill out the water so the product would be 200 proof, the standard for all ethanol fuels.

Then comes the task of removing the water. Gordon says reverse osmosis would “get you part of the way there,” but to complete the process, you’d most likely have to employ azeotropic distillation and a chemical such as benzene. The technique would take as long as making ethanol from corn and could be used to power a gasoline engine, though not a diesel, Gordon says.

If you were feeling clever and science-y, you could also use maple syrup to blow up a balloon or lift a weight through osmotic pressure, says Gordon. Finally, he supposes maple syrup could be polymerized and made into plastics in the same way corn and potatoes are.

But, given that the stuff is liquid gold and considered a luxury item, Gordon recommends keeping it where it belongs — on your waffles.

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