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Whisky waste doesn’t have to be poured down the drain anymore

What would you say if I tell you that the cars of the future may be powered by… whisky. You read that right. Irish scientist Professor Martin Tangney developed this idea at Edinburgh Napier University and is has recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign – which raked in EUR 4.2 million – to build ‘Scotland’s first commercial bio-refinery’.

The global whisky market was worth around EUR 50 billion last year. Scotland is no small player, with this spirits segment valued over EUR 5 billion. However, only about 10% of ingredients used to create this popular drink end up in a whisky bottle. It’s actually a very wasteful production process, leaving behind a great volume of scrap, namely; barley, kernels and a yeasty liquid called ‘pot ale’.

Traditionally, distilleries pay a heavy sum to get this waste off their hands. To Tangney, who studied microbiology, it is clear that whisky production waste has a higher calling. That’s exactly why he decided to pursue this unique university pilot idea further, even launching his own company Celtic Renewables in 2012. He has been fine tuning the process ever since.

The scientist describes it as a ‘patented low-carbon technology that converts unwanted, low-value biological material into high-value, low-carbon sustainable chemicals and biofuel’. The recycled fuel can be used to power any petrol or diesel car. Tangney predicts that downstream markets will be worth over EUR 107 billion by 2025.

So far, his mission is off to a running start, thanks to ‘strong commercial interest’ from global chemical companies. In fact, investors have put a total EUR 27.6 million into the venture (while Celtic Renewables achieved 210% of its latest crowdfunding goal).

Another accolade is winning the title ‘most innovative small medium enterprise’ at the 2015 European Biotech SME Awards. This earned the Celtic Renewables R&D team a cheque of EUR 10 000.

Tangney recognises this was possible thanks to his partnership with Tullibardine distillery and Europe’s biotech flagship Bio Base Europe. Here, he piloted the novel biofuel production process, backed by a EUR 1.2 million grant from the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Fast forward to now. Tangney employs a team of twenty (including medical alert dog Ekko) and the construction of the industrial-scale bio-refinery is being finalised as we speak. Operations are scheduled to begin in the first quarter of this year. The innovative site is located in Caledon Green, Grangemouth, designed to deliver an output of 1 million litres annually.

The facility will yield products like acetone, butanol, ethanol as well as high grade animal feed. ‘All of these play an important role in our daily lives and have applications in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food production, hygiene products and advanced sustainable biofuels,’ Tangney points out.

Ultimately, he says he strives to ‘re-establish, at a global scale, the Acetone-Butanol-Ethanol fermentation process, utilising local scrap materials to produce premium quality, sustainable products’. As the process is based on ‘adaptive technology’, Tangney stresses other applications may be explored in the future as well.

All in all, this sounds like a great contribution to the circular economy.

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