'Whisky fuel' plan to power cars

Whisky production
Image caption The process looks to take whisky by-products and put them to use as fuel

A car that runs on whisky? Not quite. The price of petrol would have to climb a lot higher before that made economic sense.

But Celtic Renewables has been working on the next best thing. The company, a spin-out from Napier University in Edinburgh, has developed a process to make biofuel from Scotch whisky's leftovers.

Only about 7% of the stuff that leaves our distilleries is whisky. The rest is variously referred to as by-product, residue or - less charitably - waste.

There are hundreds of thousands of tonnes a year of the spent barley kernels, known as draff, and billions of litres of liquid residue called pot ale. Both are rich in the kinds of sugars Scotch doesn't need. The Celtic Renewables process mixes the two and feeds it to clostridium bacteria.

The company's founder, Prof Martin Tangney, says the result is a fuel which can go straight into a petrol tank without having to modify the car.

"What we're trying to do is take the low value residues that are generated along with the whisky and see if we can convert those low value products into something of high value," he explains.

"In particular we're concentrating on biobutanol. It's an advanced biofuel which is a drop-in replacement for petrol."

Image caption Scientists hope to scale-up their work using the distilling residues

Prof Tangney says that by doing so they're learning from history.

"We've taken a process which at its peak was the second-biggest fermentation in the world," he says.

"We've adapted it to work with these residues from the distilling process so we can combine the pot ale with the draff and create a brand new raw material that our organisms can ferment.

"But instead of making ethanol for whisky they'll make biobutanol for fuel."

It already works in the laboratory. Now it'll be tested on an industrial scale in Belgium.

'Scaling up'

The Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant in Ghent has been designed specifically to "scale up" processes like this from the lab bench to the factory.

Prof Tangney says: "No-one's going to trust us to build a £100m facility if we've just demonstrated it at a laboratory scale.

"It's critical for the growth of the company and critical for growing this enterprise in Scotland that we can grow it as a real, live, vibrant industry.

"This partnership we've just signed with Bio Base Europe will enable us to achieve exactly that."

The deal has been made possible by funding worth £1.2m, including more than £800,000 from the UK government. (Scottish Enterprise chipped in Scottish government funding when the process was in its infancy.)

Image caption The 'whisky' fuel would be able to be used in cars without having to modify engines

If the pilot in Belgium is successful, Celtic Renewables plans to build its first commercial demonstration plant in Scotland. It's eyeing a proposed £25m fund operated by the UK Department of Transport to help realise those plans.

Martin Tangney thinks it's an idea whose time has come.

"All the countries in Europe are mandated that 10% of all fuels sold in Europe by 2020 must be biofuel," he says.

"Some can come from crops, but the preference is that as much as possible should come from waste and residues. Our process fits perfectly in that longer-term ambition - to grow a sustainable industry in Scotland and beyond."

The company's CEO Mark Simmers thinks it could bring huge rewards.

"The new investment we've just raised is giving us a real industrial capability now," he adds.

"And once we've developed our first commercial demonstrator plant we're hoping to create an industry in Scotland worth over £100m a year."

Both men are confident the first industrial-scale samples of biobutanol made from distillery waste will be created within months.

And while they want to walk before they can drive, the first "whisky-powered" car may not be too far behind.

If they're looking for a date on which to launch it, Hogmanay springs to mind...

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