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Does Scottish Whiskey Spell Disaster for Ethanol Production?

Leslie Back | Tuesday August 24th, 2010 | 2 Comments

I would like to propose a toast. Let’s raise a glass to our Scottish friends at Edinburgh Napier University’s Biofuel Research Centre, who stumbled out of a hazy lab earlier this month to file a patent for a new super biofuel made from whiskey by-products. The researchers, who have been investigating the biobutanol for the past two years, have managed to produce a fuel source that offers numerous advantages over other well-known biofuel sources, particularly ethanol.

First, the fuel can be used in ordinary cars without special adaptations. Moreover, the biobutanol provides 30% more output than ethanol and the by-product can be used to make other green renewable bio-chemicals, such as acetone. Most importantly, however, is the sustainability of the fuel production. The fuel is generated by waste products, particularly the pot ale, which is the liquid from the copper stills, and draff, the spent grains. There is no need to plant and harvest crops or divert potential food sources to fuel production. The researchers, led by Professor Martin Tangey, have found a way to make fuel from waste.

Clearly, the development is a global win, as are all shifts toward the greener good.  But on a more local scale, the production is a boon to the Scottish economy, especially those in the whiskey and tourism industries. Jim Mather, Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism is excited about the venture. Optimism runs high that the fuel development will stimulate Scottish economic recovery and add muscle to government’s Zero Waste Plan.  According to Mather, “It’s exactly this type of innovation that will help sustain economic recovery and deliver future sustainable economic growth.” The Scottish whiskey industry already generates £4bn a year and, if biobutanol proves to be a success in the transportation sector, well then, bottom’s up.

The European Union mandates that biofuel should account for 10% of fuel sales by 2020. Such prompting helped stimulate the Edinburgh research. Excellent! But, what’s the status quo a little closer to home?

In the US, ethanol remains the gold standard for biofuel, and is blended into 50% of the nation’s fuel. While some of the ethanol results from sugar production, most is produced from corn. Amazingly, the ethanol industry consumed some 3.0 billion bushels of corn, equivalent to about 20 percent of the nation’s total corn supply. But, the industry is in trouble. Ethanol subsidies are in jeopardy, to the tune of about $6 billion dollars, which come in the form of tax credits. This potential withdrawal of support stems from public distrust of the fuel source and wariness from lawmakers. Further, the Department of Energy recently announced a $24 million infusion into research for algae-based biofuel. Time will tell if the push for algae-derived fuel is a success. Clearly, the algae-as-energy industry is in its infancy, but are such new technologies and advancements signaling an end to ethanol?

I give credit to US lawmakers for looking beyond ethanol and investing in additional research and development. But, let’s give credit where credit is due. The Scots got there first, with what seems to be, at first blush, the most sustainable and intelligent biofuel to date. And, let’s just face it. The Scots get points for cool. Maybe one day we will catch up and I can have a car that runs off Kentucky Bourbon.


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  • http://www.leapcr.com Ben Leap

    Sounds exciting, but will they be able to meet demand? if not, it will stop being a fuel from waste. Would the process of making it then still be viable?

  • James Thurber

    This appears to be a very good idea for enhancing the revenue of distillers, as well as improving waste disposal, but the volumes involved are so small that it is of no economic or environmental significance as a motor fuel.