EDINBURGH – Alcohol and cars famously do not mix – but one Scottish scientist has disproved that maxim by creating a car fuel derived from the waste products of whisky making.
Edinburgh-based Celtic Renewables has developed a process to manufacture the biofuel biobutanol from draff and pot ale – barley kernels and a yeasty liquid that are produced when whisky is made and then must be disposed of safely.
Professor Martin Tangney founded Celtic Renewables in 2012 as a spin-off company from Edinburgh Napier University. Since then, Tangney has been working to take the patented technology from the lab to the refinery.
In late September 2020, after a slowdown due to Covid-19 restrictions, construction on the plant resumed with the arrival of six huge tanks, shipped from the Netherlands. Each tank can hold 130,000 litres.
“Coming out of Covid, a landmark moment for us was in joining up the supply chain and seeing the delivery of six 130 000 litre capacity tanks arriving from the Netherlands into Scotland. For me, it really showed we are coming out of it. We will be better. And Celtic Renewables is now poised to bring this technology to market and build the first biorefinery in Scottish history,” Tangney told Reuters.
When it comes online in 2021, the new plant is expected to process around 50 000 tonnes of residues each year from the whisky industry, creating around one million litres of high-value, low-carbon chemicals. These have the potential to displace fossil-fuel equivalents across a broad range of markets: the food industry, cleaning, paints, and the now-ubiquitous hand sanitizer gels could all be produced sustainably from whisky waste.
One product, biobutanol, is touted as a sustainable alternative to petrol and diesel car fuels. Biobutanol also has an advantage over other biofuels. More of it can be included in consumer petrol – as much as 15 percent – without requiring engine modifications.
In 2017, Tangney showed the new fuel’s efficiency by driving a car filled with the mixture around the car park at Edinburgh Napier University.
To date, Tangney says the company has raised over £30 million (R636m) in funding and has just launched a Crowdcube funding campaign whereby members of the public can buy shares in the company. He says the time is right with a renewed drive towards sustainability in the post-Covid world.
“Everybody really had a good look at themselves during Covid and the lockdown. And I feel like coming out of this, people realise there is a different world. We can do things differently. And there is a need and a desire to bring in a sustainable bio economy,” he said.
At the refinery site in Grangemouth Scotland, Tangney said that Celtic would get inexpensive or free raw materials from local distilleries it works with, who were keen to cut the 300 000 pounds a year it costs to dispose of the whisky waste residues. With the raw material available throughout Scotland, Tangney estimates it could eventually produce 50 million litres of biofuel each year.
And it’s a model he ultimately hopes to expand globally.
“In building this first bio refinery, it will be a major achievement for the company and for the country. But that’s the start of our story, not the end. Our real ambition is to take this at much bigger scale and build factories like this all over Scotland, all over the UK and all over the world.”