'Clean’ bioethanol: Ireland discovers the whey to go...

Low-carbon biofuel is being brewed from cheesemaking leftovers, reports Rebecca Wright
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There's a revolution going on in Ireland and it looks pretty whiffy. Over the past year the republic has become Europe's third-bestselling market of cars that run on bioethanol E85, behind Sweden and France. The Irish, however, are making their bioethanol from whey – as in the leftovers from cheese production. In doing so, they've given a whole new meaning to the term "alternative" fuel.

Some 600 Irish drivers currently fill up their tanks with bioethanol E85 every week. So far this year, sales of the renewable fuel are up by 900 per cent on 2006 and around 1,000 flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) will be sold in Ireland in 2007. Saab, which is Europe's biggest seller of FFVs, says that more than 90 per cent of Irish sales of its 9-5 model range are of the BioPower flex-fuel variety and that 9-5 sales have doubled in Ireland since the BioPower variants were launched. Ford, which already sells bioethanol-compatible versions of the Focus and C-Max, will launch flex-fuel versions of the S-Max, Galaxy and Mondeo models early next year.

Although annual sales of 1,000 such cars might not seem that impressive, it's probably four times as many as will be sold in the UK this year and the UK new car market is eight and a half times as large as the Republic of Ireland's.

Remarkably, all of Ireland's ethanol is domestically produced, at a time when most of Europe still relies on Brazil for supply. And because the ethanol is sourced from waste matter, this eliminates one of the most widely quoted criticisms of biofuels, which is that valuable food resources are being diverted for fuel usage.

The Carbery Group, one of Ireland's largest private equity firms and a major international food ingredients company, is behind this innovation. Based in the dairy heartland of Co Cork, Carbery's Ballineen factory is the largest single cheese-producing facility in Ireland, producing almost 30 per cent of annual output. As well as producing a fine range of Cheddars, mozzarella and one of Ireland's most successful brands – Dubliner cheese –the company also counts high-quality ethanol among its core product ranges.

Currently celebrating its 40th year of cheese production, the Carbery Group has been making ethanol from whey for 30 years. This came about after Ireland entered the Common Market in the 1970s and its milk production increased dramatically. The company suddenly had far too much whey, despite using large amounts of it for animal feed and various food applications. After doing some research, Carbery realised that if it removed the whey proteins to put in baby food and sports and nutrition foods, it could ferment and distil the leftover lactose to make ethanol.

The Carbery Group's marketing manager, JJ Walsh, explains that since 1978, the company has been supplying around 10 million litres of ethanol to the Irish beverage, pharmaceuticals and food industries, accounting for 50 per cent of Ireland's industrial ethanol needs. Then two years ago, Ireland's independent oil company, Maxol, made an approach, asking for indigenously produced ethanol for use in its E5 and E85 blends of ethanol and petrol. "We agreed to give them around 25 per cent of our production just to kick the industry off," says Walsh.

Three million litres is enough to supply 60 million litres of E5 (a blend of 5 per cent ethanol and 95 per cent petrol) or 3.5 million litres of E85. Walsh is keen to stress, however, that Carbery "does not have the capacity to supply the growing needs of the Irish market. These will have to be met from elsewhere". Because of fixed European Union quotas that limit the quantity of dairy products that can be produced in the EU, Carbery is not allowed to produce more cheese than it already does and turns all of its recoverable lactose into ethanol. It also has no ambition to become a producer of ethanol first and foremost.

The Carbery Group's bioethanol can be considered among the cleanest in the world. Dr Jeremy Woods from Imperial College London's Centre for Environmental Policy explains: "Because the ethanol is made from a by-product [meaning it has to account for less than 10 per cent of revenue], there are no greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of its feedstock [in this case whey]." This means that because the whey would have been produced anyway, any emissions created during that process should be attributed to the production of the cheese, not the ethanol. Walsh says Carbery's ethanol revenues make up 3 per cent of its sales and that the ethanol supplied to Maxol makes up 25 per cent of that 3 per cent.

Had the whey been produced for making ethanol, all of the emissions from the production chain as far down as the methane produced by the cows or the nitrogen fertilisers used in the making of the cows' fodder would have to be accounted for. All biofuels are measured on this "well-to-wheel" basis, where the CO2 emitted when the fuel is burnt is offset by the amount of CO2 "contained" in the fuel. "The use of bioethanol here is displacing fossil fuel emissions," explains Dr Woods. "The carbon in the whey is a biological resource, so you are releasing the CO2 that was extracted from the atmosphere."

This only leaves the emissions from the conversion of the lactose into ethanol to deal with. This is done using a sophisticated co-generation power system whereby natural gas is used to produce steam in the cheese factory, which in turn produces electricity, according to Walsh. That steam, heat and power is then used in the fermenting and distilling process to create the ethanol.

However, changes in Irish car- and fuel-buying habits have been driven by financial motivation as opposed to a burning desire to save the planet. Owing to a 50 per cent discount in vehicle registration tax, which can account for more than one third of the retail price of a new car in Ireland, buyers can shave as much as €7,000 off the most expensive flex-fuel models.

The bioethanol element of E85 – therefore 85 per cent of it – is excise-free for fuel companies such as Maxol, which is crucial because allows it to retail at a low enough price to offset the 25 per cent cut in fuel economy that such cars offer, due to ethanol having a lower energy content than petrol. The VAT on the fuel can also be claimed back. As is so often the case, these carrots from the Irish government have been enough to kick start the market. Even if the incentives do not last for ever, at least they have created an initial demand that can be built on.

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