Fans of beer will soon have yet another reason to imbibe, when a new partnership between Anheuser-Busch (now AB-InBev) and a company called Blue Marble Bio takes off. The two firms have launched a venture to convert brewery waste into a group of carboxylic acids that have a wide variety of commercial uses, including the manufacture of shaving creams and soaps. This renewable source of carboxylic acids will help the chemical industry along as it transitions out of petroleum-based formulas, and as a side benefit, the process also yields biogas that will be used to generate renewable electricity.
With the new venture, Anheuser-Busch also pushes the "green beer" movement up a few notches beyond the kind of measures that have become expected from responsible beverage companies, such as water conservation, waste reduction and the installation of renewable energy.
Green chemistry and fatty acids
Biogas capture is becoming common at breweries and food production facilities (and dairy farms, too), but Blue Marble Bio’s approach is somewhat unique because of its focus on producing carboxylic acids.
Carboxylic acids, aka fatty acids, naturally occur in both animal fat and vegetable oil. Among the more common ones are acetic acid, benzoic acid and formic acid.
Their industrial uses are pretty ubiquitous, ranging from things that go in your body or on your skin like food preservatives, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and personal care products, to other stuff including rubber, fabrics and solvents.
As far as the emerging trend in non-petroleum “green chemistry” goes, the trick is to produce carboxylic acids on an industrial scale, at a competitive price, without using conventional processes that involve fossil fuels or rare earths.
Making renewable fatty acids with a low carbon footprint
Like beer making, the Blue Marble process is based on fermentation, in which bacteria break down biomass as they digest it. Since the bacteria do most of the heavy lifting on their own, relatively little energy input is needed.
If you’ve been reading up on your biomass-to-biofuel news, the fermentation angle might ring a bell. A good deal of current biofuel research deals with identifying “extreme” microbes that are adept at breaking down the tough cell walls of woody, non-food biomass.
In addition to looking for highly efficient naturally occurring bacteria, researchers are also exploring the potential for genetically engineering a kind of biofuel super-bug.
The Blue Marble process takes the former approach by deploying natural bacteria, with the additional tweak of combining different kinds of bacteria that work together as a living “production chain.” The company calls its process AGATE, for “Acid, Gas, and Ammonia Targeted Extraction.”
Getting closer to renewable carboxylic acids
Blue Marble Bio began testing waste grain from Anheuser-Busch about a year ago and is scaling up the process for a small facility in Missoula, Montana.
If all goes well, Blue Marble will develop a pilot-scale biorefinery at an Anheuser-Busch brewery at a yet to be identified location.
As for what the beer maker gets out of it, the company gets the benefit of cutting down on its waste disposal costs and brewery emissions (natural sulfur capture is part of the deal), along with developing a new market for spent grain aside from selling it for livestock feed.
Building a greener beer brand
The partnership also adds a little more green cred to Anheuser-Busch’s sustainability program. In a Memorandum of Understanding for the new partnership, the company stated that:
“We are continuously looking for new ways to reduce our environmental impact by reducing energy and water usage, improving the quality of the wastewater that we send to local municipalities, and reducing the environmental impact of our byproducts. Converting our spent grain to green chemicals to replace those that are currently made from fossil fuels aligns well with these goals.”
That puts a nifty green spin on every six-pack you buy, but for those who are uncomfortable around alcohol-related products the AGATE process also deals with non-brewery biomass waste including agricultural waste, yard clippings, wood chips, and food byproducts.
Blue Marble also recently partnered with the University of Montana to adapt the process for algae. That would serve as a sustainability twofer, since the growing algae would capture waste carbon dioxide from the process.
Another piece in the green cultural puzzle
With the solid backing of one of the most iconic brands in the U.S., next-generation sustainability is becoming firmly ensconsed in the cultural mainstream. Alongside American beer, you can also count professional sports and the U.S. military as early, enthusiastic adopters of new green tech.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.