Professor Martin Tangney and his colleagues showing samples of biofuel made from whisky production residues

Whisky waste biofuel plant proposed for Scotland

A Scottish professor has found a new use for waste from Scotland’s renowned whisky distilleries, aiming to mass-produce high quality biofuel for cars once oil runs out.

Being the first in the world to have successfully produced high-grade bio-butanol from by-products of grain mesh fermentation, Professor Martin Tangney, director of Napier University's biofuel research centre, set up a private company Celtic Renewables, which has now announced plans to build a large-scale facility in central Scotland.

The firm hopes to win funding through the UK Department for Transport’s biofuel demonstration competition, aiming to start commercial operations in the next three years.

Professor Tangney showed the first samples of the whisky-based fuel to the public at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh earlier this week.

"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.”

However, as Professor Tangney explained, the method was later discontinued as it, at that time, couldn’t compete with the growing petrochemical lobby. It was re-discovered at the onset of the third millennium by an American enthusiast who used butanol made from crops to power his conventional car across the USA.

"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?,” said Professor Tangney.

Whiskey production, being as plentiful as it is in Scotland, was an obvious thing to look at.

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

He first developed the technology in the lab and later scaled it up in cooperation with Belgium’s Biobase Europe Pilot Plant project. The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change provided £1m to help the idea off the ground to potentially solve both the fossil fuel problem and waste disposal issues for distilleries.

“The process we have perfected takes residues that present a disposal issue to the whisky industry and creates value by producing not only sustainable biofuel but also green chemicals and high grade animal feed,” said Mark Simmers, CEO of Celtic Renewables.

“The exciting challenge for us now as a business is to convert our proven technology into a multi-million pound industry, and building our first demonstration plant is the next critical step to achieving that goal.”

If successful in the Department for Transport’s competition, the firm hopes to open the large-scale facility, capable of producing 1 million litres of biofuel a year, in Grangemouth petrochemical plant by 2018.

"You should really look at butanol as being a like-for-like substitute for oil," said Professor Tangney. "At the moment, all of the testing of the fuel has been established as a road transportation fuel.”

The biofuel could also be used to power aircraft, ships or heaters, possibly replacing oil on a wider scale once Scotland’s reserves run out.

"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,” Professor Tangney explained.

"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?”

The Grangemouth project has enlisted support of major local players including Scotland’s Government’s business support agency Scottish Enterprise and Perthsire distillery Tullibardine.

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