Monday 25 September 2017

Whisky biofuel samples unveiled

Whisky accounts for just 10 per cent of the material produced in distilleries, with the remaining biological raw materials disposed of at a cost to the industry
Whisky accounts for just 10 per cent of the material produced in distilleries, with the remaining biological raw materials disposed of at a cost to the industry

A scientist has produced the first commercially viable fuel to be developed from whisky by-products.

Professor Martin Tangney, director of Napier University's biofuel research centre, has produced an advanced biofuel called biobutanol, which could provide an alternative to oil for car and aviation fuel as well as other technologies.

Whisky accounts for just 10% of the material produced in distilleries, with the remaining biological raw materials disposed of at a cost to the industry.

Prof Tangney has set up a business called Celtic Renewables which will take those by-products and turn them into fuel.

He unveiled the first-ever samples of biobutanol at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh.

"The underlying technology that we use in this process is actually 100 years old," he said.

"It's fermentation known as the ABE fermentation, which was developed in the UK mainly to produce acetone for explosives in the First World War, and by the end of the Second World War it was the second biggest biological process that the world had seen.

"It died out in the 1960s because it couldn't compete with the petrochemical industry as a source of these chemicals.

"But in 2006 an American inventor by the name of David Ramey drove a car 10,000 miles around America using only butanol in a totally unmodified engine, and that showed the world that this chemical could be used as an advanced biofuel.

"What I sought to do as a scientist who had experience in the area was to see if I could adapt that proven technology into a modern context, but instead of using crops as the raw material, could I find some other abundant residue that would allow me to make this at scale?

"We looked at the Scottish malt whisky industry as a source of this raw material.

"Less than 10% of what comes out of a distillery is actually whisky and the other products have no, limited or even negative value to the industry.

"That, to me, looked like a great source of raw material, which we developed first in a research project and then we scaled up in the last year with funding from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, working in partnership with a state-of-the-art industrial test facility in Belgium called Biobase Europe Pilot Plant.

"We've scaled this up from the lab to a pre-commercial scale."

Biobutanol could extend the life of the UK's finite oil fields by providing a fuel substitute, according to Prof Tangney.

"You should really look at butanol as being a like-for-like substitute for oil," he said.

"At the moment, all of the testing of the fuel has been established as a road transportation fuel.

"It will come in as a blend initially but you could use it neat in a car - but it doesn't have to be cars. It actually turns out to be a decent base unit for jet fuel, they have completed trials for shipping and you could even use it as a heating fuel.

"So it really is a fuel source, and how you use it depends on your needs and the market value.

"Oil is vast, let there be no doubts at all about it. Oil, as it currently stands, is a huge global resource but it is a finite global resource.

"It will run out and in Scotland there is an oil deposit that we have been using here, and the debate over the last year or so was how long would it last for?

"So if you think not in terms of can we replace oil? It is how can we extend it? That's the more interesting feature, I think."

Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Government's business support agency, said Celtic Renewables has "massive potential" for growth.

Rhona Alison, senior director for company growth at Scottish Enterprise, said: "What a marvellous story Celtic Renewables are.

"A spin-out of our fantastic research base in Scotland that is actually now creating into a new company that is growing and the potential is massive for the company to grow into a large company.

"Scottish Enterprise has worked with Martin since 2008 when he was working as an academic.

"We supported him through our proof-of-concept programme which is really about identifying commercial research and science and taking it from the academic arena into the commercial arena.

"The next step is absolutely how Celtic Renewables can scale this up to produce more product and actually start expanding their marketplace, both within the UK and abroad."

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