Scottish Professor Figures Out How To Turn Whisky Waste Into Energy

Dr Eve Bird works with bacteria in Celtic Renewables’ lab, which has come up with a way to turn whisky waste to biofuel. CREDIT: COURTESY CELTIC RENEWABLES
Dr Eve Bird works with bacteria in Celtic Renewables’ lab, which has come up with a way to turn whisky waste to biofuel. CREDIT: COURTESY CELTIC RENEWABLES

A professor in Scotland figured out how to turn waste from whisky-making into an energy source, and now his company has received a grant to build a facility that will produce a million liters (about 264,000 gallons) of biofuel a year.

The U.K. government awarded professor Martin Tangney’s group, Celtic Renewables, £11 million ($16.7 million) to build a plant 25 miles outside Edinburgh. The facility is expected to be operation by the end of 2018.

While the opening of this facility will be a small step towards transitioning to a low-carbon transportation sector, it could signal an important development in the world of biofuels. In the United States, transportation is responsible for nearly a third of total carbon emissions.

“Biofuels are essential in de-carbonizing the transport sector and demand for liquid fuel will continue to soar worldwide, due to the dependence on the internal combustion engine,” the company says on its website.


At the moment, ethanol, largely produced directly from corn, is the leading biofuel but the fuel produced from whisky waste is actually a better energy source than the ethanol currently in the gasoline mix. Ethanol has also raised other significant environmental concerns, particularly land use changes that can result in greenhouse gas emissions.

Celtic Renewables will be pumping out biobutanol. This is an alcohol that is similar to ethanol but releases significantly more energy during combustion than ethanol — almost as much as traditional gasoline. That means that engines already in our cars can use gasoline mixed with biobutanol at almost any level. Most American cars can use only 10 percent ethanol.

It is also going to be produced from something that is currently wasted, which means resources and land are not invested in making it.

“In the production of whisky less than ten percent of what comes out in the distillery is actually the primary product,” Tangney, who founded Celtic Renewables in 2012, told Reuters. “The bulk of the remainder are these unwanted residues — pot ale and barley.”

The whisky industry produces 1,600 million liters (42 million gallons) of pot ale and 500,000 metric tons of draff each year, the company says.

Tangney said this facility could be replicated across the spirits industry.

“There are huge whisky industries all around the world, and then there are related drinks industries,” he said. “We’re currently going through a pipeline of research and development where we’re looking at a whole wide variety of unrelated products that will also fit into this, so we’re attempting to tap into regional, national, international resources of low value or unwanted biological material.”

Tangney is a professor in the Biofuel Research Centre at Edinburgh Napier University.