Scottish Scientists Make Biofuel from Whiskey

Scottish scientists devise a method to convert whisky-making byproducts into biofuel

Giving “belly up to the bar” a whole new meaning…

Bad puns aside, Scottish scientists recently announced a method for converting whiskey-making byproducts into biofuel (no bottled whiskey is harmed in the making of this fuel). Using samples from the Glenkinchie Distillery, researchers at the Biofuel Research Centre at Edinburgh Napier University have developed a process using spent grains called “draff” and “pot ale” (liquid from copper stills leftover in the distillation process) to make a “biobutanol” fuel. Butanol burns in conventional gas engines, and can also be used in aviation and as a basis for chemicals such as acetone.

Butanol has a higher energy density than other biofuels ( a sticking point with most bio vs. fossil fuel), with 25 percent more energy per unit volume than ethanol biofuel. Butanol can run in any blended amount with gasoline, unlike ethanol which can only be blended up to 85 percent. Butanol can also blend with diesel and bio-diesel engines.

Making whiskey produces a lot of waste (and I’m not talking about what happens when you drink too much of it). According to the researchers, the $6.25 billion dollar whiskey industry creates 187,000 tons of draff and 400 million gallons of pot ale annually.

Unlike other biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel, the feedstock for biobutanol is from organic waste, and thus has no impact on forests, agricultural land and food crops. The new, and still somewhat secret, method of producing butanol and acetone is similar to a 100-year-old process using sugar fermentation. Professor Martin Tangney, who heads up the project, points out that the use of waste products, instead of raising crops specifically to produce biofuels, is the preferable and more sustainable approach. Whiskey-fuel (my term) could account for as much as 10 percent of total fuel sales by 2020 he added, making a crucial contribution to EU biofuel targets.

Another key point is taking advantage of regional resources – like Scotch Whiskey byproducts from Scotland – to displace our global dependency on fossil fuel:

“What people need to do is stop thinking ‘either/or’; people need to stop thinking like-for-like substitution for oil,” Tangey says. “That’s not going to happen. Different things will be needed in different countries. Electric cars will play some role in the market, taking cars off the road could be one of the most important things we ever do.”

Tangey’s team has filed a patent for the process, with plans to develop the boozy biofuel (last bad pun, I promise) commercially.

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