Topping up at the gas pump is about to take an intriguing twist thanks to a new super biofuel made from whisky by-products.
Scotland’s Edinburgh Napier University has filed a patent for the new biofuel that can be used in ordinary cars without any special equipment.
The process has been developed over two years by the university’s Biofuel Research Center using whisky distilling by-products from Diageo plc’s Glenkinchie Distillery.
“This is a more environmentally sustainable option and potentially offers new revenue on the back of one of Scotland’s biggest industries,” says center director Martin Tangney, an expert in the development of butanol as a second-generation biofuel.
“We’ve worked with some of the country’s leading whisky producers to develop the process.”
Tangney, an Irishmen from County Cork, established the center at the university in 2007.
The European Union is calling for biofuels to account for 10% of total fuel sales by 2020, he says.
“We’re committed to finding new, innovative renewable energy sources,” Tangney says in a statement. “While some energy companies are growing crops specifically to generate biofuels, we are investigating excess materials such as whisky by-products to develop them.”
The Edinburgh Napier team focused on the £4 billion ($6.3 billion) whisky industry as a ripe resource for developing butanol, the next-generation biofuel that packs 30% more energy than ethanol.
Tangney assures connoisseurs not one drop of the golden malts is used to make the new fuel.
Instead, researchers are using the two main by-products of the whisky production process, pot ale, the liquid from the copper stills, and draff, the spent grains, as the basis for producing the butanol.
With 423 million gallons (1.6 billion L) of pot ale and 170,000 tons (187,000 t) of draff produced by the malt-whisky industry annually, Tangney says there is real potential for the biofuel to be available at local service stations alongside traditional fuels.
It is a clean, carbon-neutral fuel that can be blended with regular gasoline to run an engine, and the researchers say, unlike ethanol, the nature of this biofuel means ordinary cars could use the more powerful fuel instead of traditional gasoline.
The university now plans to create a spin-off company to take the new fuel to market and leverage the commercial opportunity.
“It’s now a viable proposition for the larger players in the biofuel and whisky sectors to try and bring a fuel derived from these by-products to the marketplace,” Tangney tells Ward’s.
“And if they do accept the challenge, then it’s years rather than decades before we could see it” at service stations.
The technology for developing biofuel from whisky was inspired from a 100-year-old process created by Chaim Weizmann, a Jewish refugee chemist in Manchester, U.K., who studied the butanol fermentation initially as part of a program to produce rubber synthetically.
The process later was used in explosives manufacture during WWI and WWII.
Weizmann later was instrumental in establishing the state of Israel and went on to become its first president.
By the way, the Scottish brew is spelled whisky. Just about any other version is spelled whiskey.