Scotland commercializes biofuel

By Amelia Hill
Online Editor

Scotch whisky can do many things, like: make a man impetuous, make him appear astute, and simply just make him drunk. Whisky can also be used as a source of fuel, and until recently, this biofuel hadn’t been industrialized. Because of researchers at Napier University, Scotland now drinks for a greener environment.

Biofuel History

Contrary to popular belief, the concept of biofuel is actually pretty old. Rudolf Diesel, who invented the pressure-ignited heat engine, had envisioned vegetable oil as a fuel source.  For example, in 1900, at the World Exhibition in Paris, France, he ran his engine on peanut oil, according to historians and biofuel experts. Diesel even stated, “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuel may seem insignificant today, but such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.” Henry Ford expected his Model T to run on a corn product called ethanol. The world used to have butanol plants; they were shut down. Why?

“Rockefeller was so vertically integrated,” Rebekah Starkweather, Crowder biofuel instructor, explains. “He was a very rich man; he could sell at a loss until the competition would have to bow out, ruling the oil industry. Vertical integration, from the ground to the car—he controlled it all. That’s the way the gas companies are today,”

Today’s Biofuel Industry

Originally, researchers at Abertray Universtity in Dundee, Scotland, were to investigate the process of making bioethanol from beer and whisky by-products. Bioethanol is carbon dioxide neutral and produces 65% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. Previously, the United States and Brazil have been successful in creating bioethanol from sugarcane and corn starch; however, according to biofuel experts, the unsustainable methods used have been criticized.

Later, a research team from Edinburgh Napier University focused on the whisky industry to develop, the next generation of biofuel, biobutanol. Unlike ethanol, which can only fuel modified engines, butanol is able to fuel ordinary cars. In addition, butanol gives 25-30% more output power than ethanol.

Over 90% of the product coming from a whisky distillery isn’t whisky, but rather draff (the spent grains) and pot ale (the liquid from the copper stills). Normally, these sugary by-products are used as fertilizer and cattle feed. Each year, the whiskey industry produces 1.6 billion liters of pot ale and half a million tons of draff.  The whisky by-products are fed to bacteria, producing butanol, a direct replacement for fossil-derived fuel.

Because of Edinburgh Napier University’s outstanding results, Celtic Renewables Ltd, a company to commercialize the biobutanol from whisky process, was formed in Jan. 2012. Soon after, the company partnered with Tullibardine Distillery in Perthshire to industrialize the butanol production. Founder of Celtic Renewables, Professor Martin Tangney, stated that the partnership will “utilize resources on our doorstep [UK] to benefit both the environment and the economy.” Celtic Renewables hopes of constructing an industry with global potential that could be worth $78 million.

Biofuel in the Community

Crowder’s biofuel department, which produces ethanol rather than butanol, resembles the smell of a bread factory or brewery.

“Even though it [butanol] is a fuel they [researchers] think can be better streamlined into our existing fuel systems, bacterial waste stinks,” states Starkweather.  The process technician, on being asked his preference on biofuel production, said he’d rather deal with the smell of yeast.

The biofuel process isn’t just applicable in transportation. In fact, the same bio-feedstocks can produce chemicals used in plastics. A major focus of bio-anything is national security.

“We are so used to the level of living we have, and if we got to a point where we didn’t have plastics, like in health care, that just wouldn’t be good. We need to maintain the level of living we’re used to,” Starkweather illustrates.

“I like knowing that the college I attend has an eco-friendly environment,” Steven Dillard, a Crowder student, stated. “It [the college’s green environment] reminds me to turn off my bedroom light before I go to class, not leave the water running when I brush my teeth, and coast down hills to save gas while I drive. I hope to see more eco-friendly options become implemented in our nation—especially in our community.”