Will maraschino cherries power our engines?


CORVALLIS - Would you pump cherry-flavored "gasohol" into your car?

An Oregon State University food scientist is studying the feasibility of turning the salty brine that is used to preserve much of the state's cherry crop into ethanol, often called gasohol when it's used in automobile fuel.

But OSU Experiment Station researcher Alan Bakalinsky says the economics aren't right at the moment.

Oregon produces 30 to 40 percent of all U.S. brined cherries, which include the maraschino cherries used on an ice cream sundae. These cherries bring Oregon "briners" 90 cents to $1 per pound. But the cost of disposing of the brine eats up about three cents for every pound of brined cherries sold.

That adds up quickly.

There are about 10 million gallons of brine left from the process in Oregon each year. Since it can't just be flushed down the drain, the cost of treatment and disposal - primarily in Salem and The Dalles - is about $900,000 per year.

Carl Payne, head of research and development for Oregon Cherry Growers, Inc. , says he started looking for alternative methods of disposal several years ago when he attended a food technology presentation by Bakalinsky. The OSU researcher recommended f ermenting the brine to extract ethanol and designed an experiment to see if it was feasible.

"Just about anything with sugar content can be fermented, but most of the ethanol in the U.S. comes from corn sugar and is produced on a huge scale," said Bakalinsky.

Ethanol is commonly used as a partial gasoline replacement (often called gasohol). Brazil has even tried to convert all its cars to run on pure ethanol.

Small-scale tests have been completed and Bakalinsky estimates Oregon cherry briners could produce 260,000 gallons of pure ethanol from their brine each year.

"This a very small amount and alone would never justify construction of a fuel ethanol plant," Bakalinsky said. "But if combined with other locally generated, sugar-containing food processing wastes, an ethanol distilling business might become a practi cal alternative to disposal in Oregon.

"However," he added, "the economics of trucking food processing waste and the relatively low prices of oil compared to ethanol make this unlikely in the near future."

Bakalinsky says there might be a way to squeeze a few more cents out of the distillation process. There are other recoverable byproducts, such as benzaldehyde, a key cherry flavoring agent, and calcium sulfite, which might have value as a liming agent to reduce the acidity of Oregon's soils.

"We're keeping distilling on our short list of alternatives," Payne said, "but right now it is still cheaper to pay to treat and dispose of the brine than to distill out the ethanol.

"The main economic hitch remains transportation costs," he said. "We would have to either build two distilling operations or truck the brine from The Dalles to Salem or vice versa. The same holds true for using a third-party distiller. Trucking the bri ne, which is 95 percent water, isn't cost effective."

Bakalinsky says the whole economic picture could change rapidly if the price of oil rises, making ethanol more valuable, or if the costs of disposal go up, making distilling more cost effective.