Whiskey charts course from drink to biofuel

When it comes to green, Scotland has more than that famous lush greenery going on. 

Over the last year alone, the country commissioned its first grid-tied commercial scale tidal turbine, signed lease agreements for five new offshore wind farms and dedicated £35 million ($54 million) in support of the marine and tidal renewables industry.

In fact, projects representing £750 million ($1185 million USD) of investment in renewables came online in Scotland in 2011, with a whopping £46 billion ($73 billion USD) still in the pipeline, putting this part of the United Kingdom on track to meet its ambitious goal of meeting 100 percent of its electricity needs with clean energy by 2020. All of which, you’d have to say, spells a pretty clear focus on the future.

Scotland’s latest green innovation, however, draws on one of its rich cultural traditions, hailing back to between 1100 and 1300 A.D.: whisky (that potent beverage known elsewhere as scotch, and spelled elsewhere with an ‘e’).

Celtic Renewables is a new company recently spun off of Edinburgh Napier University’s Biofuel Research Centre in order to commercialize a process for producing biofuel made from the by-products of whisky. We initially reported in 2010 about efforts in the lab to make a go at this as a business and now the initial focus, of course, will be on Scotland’s £4 billion ($6.3 billion USD) malt whisky industry (!) and developing bio-butanol — a next generation biofuel — and other renewable chemicals.

Nor is the potential for this innovative process confined to spent whisky mash, as researchers have noted it as possessing “huge global potential” in terms of its adaption to other biological by-products. (Perhaps certain types of by-products found in abundance in, say, Milwaukee, Wisco.?)

This fermentation process makes use of the two main by-products of whisky production: ‘pot ale’, which is the liquid from the copper stills, and ‘draff’, the spent grains. And while oil production may fall off in the years to come, Scottish whisky production shows no sign of shortage any time soon, as the industry currently produces 1600 million litres (422 million gallons) of pot ale and 500,000 tonnes (551,155 tons) of draff each year.

Biobutanal enjoys a distinct advantage over other forms of biofuels in that it can be used as a direct replacement for gasoline, or as a blend, with no need for engine modification.

“The Scottish malt whisky industry is a ripe resource for developing bio-butanol,” said Professor Martin Tangney, Founder of Celtic Renewables and Director of the Biofuel Research Centre at Napier University, in a statement.

He goes on to note that whisky-industry by-products could reduce Scotland’s oil consumption and carbon emissions while also helping to provide the country with energy security, particularly in the rural and remote homelands of the whisky industry.

In keeping with the huge potential of this process, in Scotland and beyond, Celtic Renewables has secured Dr. Doug Ward, founder of Scotland’s largest biofuel producer, Argent Energy, as its chairman, who in turn has secured “significant” private investment from Adelphi Distillery co-owner Donald Houston.

The initial research project pioneering Celtic Renewables’ biofuels process was backed by Scottish Enterprise’s Proof of Concept Programme, while the company has since benefited from a Scottish Enterprise SMART: Scotland grant to the tune of £70,000 ($111,000 USD) to assist in scaling up this technology and making it commercially feasible.

Scotland’s Fergus Ewing MSP, Minister for Energy, Enterprise & Tourism said, in a statement, “Scotland’s whisky has a worldwide reputation for excellence and generates huge benefits for our economy. It’s fitting, then, that the by-products of this industry are now being used in an area where we have so much promise – sustainable biofuels.”

He goes on to note that turning whisky industry by-products into raw materials for sustainable biofuels that can be used to power ordinary family cars is an example of the sort of the “innovative thinking” that Scotland excels in. It should also be said this isn’t the only whisky to biofuels project going on either.

Susan DeFreitas, EarthTechling