One for the road: Researchers develop biofuel from whisky waste

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Inside the biofuel lab: Researchers from Edinburgh Napier University have created a new biofuel from by-products of the whisky industry

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The message is clear. Whisky and driving is not a good mix. But rules are made to be broken and researchers at Edinburgh Napier University have managed to successfully marry the two, albeit as a fuel for the vehicle and not the driver. Researchers have taken two by-products of the whisky-making process and transformed them into an energy dense biofuel that doesn't require vehicles to undergo any modification prior to use.

The technology behind the development is said to have been inspired by a 100 year old process known as Acetone-Butanol-Ethanol fermentation, which was developed by chemist Chaim Weizmann (who also just happened to be Israel's first President). For the last couple of years, researchers at the Edinburgh Napier University's Biofuel Research Center have been tweaking and finely tuning the process using distilling by-products supplied from Diageo's Glenkinchie Distillery. Diageo's whisky brands include Johnny Walker, J&B, Talisker Single Malt and of course Glenkinchie.

Every year, Scotland's GBP4 billion (about US$6.2 billion) malt whisky industry produces around 1,600 million liters of pot ale – the liquid from the copper stills – and 187,000 tonnes of draff – the spent grains. The research project led by Professor Martin Tangney has managed to successfully convert these waste products into biobutanol.

Butanol is a four carbon alcohol which is said to give up to 30 percent more output power than ethanol and has a lower vapor pressure and higher flashpoint which makes it easier to handle. It's also less corrosive making it easier to transport and store, and whereas ethanol can only be blended with petrol, butanol can also be blended with diesel or biodiesel. Significantly, butanol can also be used as a stand-alone transportation fuel in ordinary vehicles without the need for special engine modification. As well as being used as a biofuel, the new biobutanol product can also be used to manufacture other renewable bio-chemicals, like acetone.

Professor Tangney said: "The EU has declared that biofuels should account for 10 per cent of total fuel sales by 2020. While some energy companies are growing crops specifically to generate biofuel, we are investigating excess materials such as whisky by-products to develop them. This is a more environmentally sustainable option and potentially offers new revenue on the back of one of Scotland's biggest industries."

Edinburgh Napier University has now filed a patent for the new biofuel and plans to form a company to take the new product into commercial production – next stop, the petrol pumps.

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