Whisky in the Jar, Whisky in Your Car – First Ever Test Drive on Whisky Biofuel

July 8, 2017 |

In the UK, the traditional Irish song “Whiskey in the Jar” comes to mind as we celebrate and raise our glasses for the world’s first test drive running on Scotch whisky. Don’t grab your whisky bottle and pour it into your gas tank just yet – we are talking about Celtic Renewables’ biobutanol made from whisky residue. BBC Scotland reporter said the short drive was smooth and she couldn’t notice any difference in the car’s journey compared to a regular gasoline or diesel powered car. Even better, the car’s engine didn’t need to be modified to gulp up the good stuff, which was tested at a 15% biobutanol blend ratio with gasoline.

Professor Martin Tangney, the company’s founder and President, said “This is the first time in history that a car has ever been driven with a biofuel produced from whisky production residues. It is fitting to do this historic drive in Scotland, which is famous not just for its world-renowned whisky but also for being a powerhouse for renewable energy. Celtic Renewables is playing its part in sustainability by taking this initiative from a research project at Edinburgh Napier University to, what we believe will be, a multi-billion-pound global business with the opportunity to turn transport green.”

Back in March, we toasted and tasted at ABLC’s whisky reception thanks to Celtic Renewables and selected Scottish distillers, but this test drive is cause for even more celebration. First, let’s understand how and why whisky could possibly make a good biofuel feedstock, and how it is solving a waste issue while addressing the need for sustainable advanced biofuels.

Why Whisky?

As we reported in March 2015, ABE fermentation was first developed in the UK a century ago, but died out in competition with the petrochemical industry. However bio-butanol is now recognized as an advanced biofuel – a direct replacement for petrol – and the Scottish company is reintroducing the process to Europe for the first time since the 1960s, using the millions of tonnes of annual whisky production residues as their unique raw material.

Celtic’s president Martin Tangney gave a company overview at ABLC 2017 in Washington DC that helps explain how they convert malt whisky by-products that are otherwise thrown away in the industry into something as valuable as…well…gasoline.

In uniquely combining the whisky by-products, Celtic adapts the traditional Weizmann Fermentation process (also known as ABE fermentation) to a brand new and entirely sustainable novel substrate – not only providing a sustainable disposal route for the by-products of one of the UK’s largest and most iconic industries, but also integrating renewable energy production with environmental sustainability and carbon reduction, by producing sustainable biobutanol as a direct replacement for fossil road fuel to help meet the EU mandated biofuel targets, together with a sustainable source of other high value products.

Celtic Renewables Ltd is initially focused on the $5.15 billion (4 billion) Scottish Malt Whisky industry as a ripe resource for developing biobutanol. The pioneering process combines the two main by-products of whisky production (Pot Ale and Draff) to produce high value renewable products, including biobutanol.

As we reported in August 2016, Celtic Renewables filed for planning permission to build a commercial-scale biobutanol facility from whisky production waste streams in Grangemouth, Scotland, with commissioning due in 2018. Public consultations on the proposal were held as part of the planning permission process. The Scottish town has long been the target for the company’s eventual scale up to commercial production following its successful demonstration of the technology, believing it could become a $116 million per year industry.

Now that they have their first test drive completed, how much closer are they to reaching that $116 million per year industry? Once their commercial scale plant is up and running in 2018, we’ll see how quickly they get to that amount, but things sure look promising based on how much whisky we drink worldwide and the fact that we really need sustainable alternative fuels.

Whisky – The Way of the Future?

We love our liquor, and according to Celtic it shows with each year in Scotland alone, the whisky industry producing about 827,000 tons (750,000 tonnes) of draff and 2 billion liters (litres) of pot ale. All of that draff and pot ale can be used to make Celtic’s biobutanol, making it a plentiful feedstock for making millions of liters of biofuel.

Right now, Celtic is working with Tullibardine Distillery in Perthshire, Scotland, but there are over 100 whisky distilleries they can work with just in Scotland, and many more around the world as they grow and expand into commercialization. Distilleries everywhere would be glad to have this waste taken off their hands since it’s useless to them and just something they need to get rid of, making it a win-win for Celtic and the distilleries. In fact, Tangney told Reuters that Celtic would get inexpensive or free raw materials from the Tullibardine Distillery, who pay about $386,370.00 (300,000 pounds) a year to get rid of the whisky waste residues.

The Bottom Line

Celtic’s future looks very bright and their innovation is being recognized with several awards for doing their part on trying to resolve a waste issue and a fossil fuel issue with a sustainable solution, like the UK Private Business Award this June, the European Business Awards for the Environment, Scottish Business Awards, Life Sciences Award, Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership’s Low Carbon Champion award, and several others.

But good things come to those who wait, and wait we’ll need to do. It will take time as their first commercial scale facility won’t be ready until next year, and even at full capacity, it will produce 500,000 liters a year, a far cry from the millions of liters a year they hope to eventually produce. So where and when will additional facilities be built? Will they reach the $116 million annual estimate? It remains to be seen, but they are off to an amazing start.

In the meantime, instead of barrels of oil, let’s start counting barrels of whisky and celebrate by not driving drunk, but letting your car be the drunk one.

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