Scotland Just Fueled a Car with Whisky, Because of Course

At least we'll know who to thank when we can say "No, Officer, I'm not drinking—but my car is."

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Jul 8 2017, 9:00pm

Foto: Iain Watson | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

If you had to guess which country would be the first to make a whisky-powered car, you'd say Scotland, right? Of course you would – and of course they did. On Friday morning, a Ford Focus powered by whisky residue made its first successful test drive in Edinburgh. The newly developed (and almost stereotypically Scottish) fuel, biobutanol, is made from a combination of draff, the barley residue left after whisky is fermented, and pot ale, the liquid from fermented wort that is left in the still after the distillation process.

"My fingers were crossed, I have to confess," Professor Martin Tangney, the founder and president of Celtic Renewables, told the Telegraph. "We physically poured a bottle of [alcohol] butanol into the car, but the scale of this could be huge."

The whisky residue biofuel was developed by Celtic Renewables, a startup launched at Edinburgh Napier University, and Tullibardine Distillery supplied the materials leftover from its single-malt distillery. According to Celtic Renewables, only 10 percent of "what flows out of the distillery" – any distillery – eventually becomes whisky. It hopes to convert the draff and pot ale left behind into biofuel, which would not only cut back on CO2 emissions from vehicles (some estimates say it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent compared to gasoline), but could also become an energy source in remote areas of Scotland that are short on gas stations, but heavy on distilleries.

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Celtic Renewables estimates that, every year, the Scottish whisky industry produces 2 billion liters of pot ale and 500,000 tons of draff. In addition to biofuel, the company uses some of those leftovers to make animal feed.

"What we developed was a process to combine the liquid with the solid, and used an entirely different traditional fermentation process called ABE, and it makes the chemical called biobutanol," Tangney explained to the BBC. "And that is a direct replacement, here and now, for petrol." And, here and now, he's right: that Focus didn't require any modification to its engine or fuel system to run on biobutanol.

Although the process sounds decidedly 21st century, it was actually developed in the early 1900s and used to make acetone for explosives in during WW1. Despite its benefits – and similarities to gasoline—production stopped in the 1960s, largely because of the cost to make it. Celtic Renewables has been trying to revive biobutanol for the past two years, and has tweaked the recipe a bit by using those whisky residues. The company has already received £9 million ($11.6 million) from the Scottish government and hopes to use this and additional funding to build a demonstration plant and expand its capabilities.

At least we'll know who to thank when we can say "No, Officer, I'm not drinking—but my car is."