University turns beer into biofuel

A team of chemists at the University of Bristol have made significant steps towards developing a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels having produced a petrol using beer as a key ingredient.

Beer could prove to be the key to sustainable energy

For several years scientists at the university have been working on a way of turning ethanol – used to produce bioethanol, one of the most widely used sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels – into butanol.

Butanol – a better alternative to ethanol – but which is difficult to make from sustainable sources, a release from the University of Bristol stated.

Professor Duncan Wass, whose team led the research, said: “The alcohol in alcoholic drinks is actually ethanol – exactly the same molecule that we want to convert into butanol as a petrol replacement.

“So alcoholic drinks are an ideal model for industrial ethanol fermentation broths – ethanol for fuel is essentially made using a brewing process.

“If our technology works with alcoholic drinks (especially beer which is the best model) then it shows it has the potential to be scaled up to make butanol as a petrol replacement on an industrial scale.”

By finding a way to turn widely available ethanol into butanol, the team hopes a sustainable source of energy could be developed.

In the petrochemical industry ‘catalysts’ are used to convert ethanol into butanol, with the team finding that their catalysts have the ability to convert beer (or specifically, the ethanol in beer) into butanol.

Credit: University of Bristol

The team has already achieved this in laboratory conditions with pure, dry ethanol but, with the team now working to scale the technology up, allowing it to work with ethanol fermentation broths.

Professor Wass added: “We wouldn’t actually want to use beer on an industrial scale and compete with potential food crops.

“But there are ways to obtain ethanol for fuel from fermentation that produce something that chemically is very much like beer – so beer is an excellent readily available model to test our technology.”

Scaling the technology up could take another five years of development, with the team now working to determine what makes their catalysts so successful.

The research was published in the journal Catalysis Science and Technology.

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