From polishing copper to spicing up your bubble bath, beer’s a product that’s seen plenty of unexpected uses.  But this could be the first time it’s ever ended up in the tank of a car.

Drivers in Auckland, New Zealand, were recently pleased to receive a free fill-up from their local petrol station – with a biofuel made from beer.  DB Export, a New Zealand-based brewing company, unveiled their 98-octane biofuel, ‘Brewtroleum’, which contains ethanol from by-products of the beer-making process.

According to the company, Brewtroleum emits 8% less carbon than traditional petrol, and could help each driver to save over 250 tonnes of carbon emissions each year.]

‘This is a genuinely exciting opportunity,’ said Sean O’Donnell, DB’s head of domestic beer marketing.  ‘It’s a world-first, we’re helping Kiwis save the world by doing what they enjoy best – drinking beer.’

For environmentalists and beer enthusiasts alike, it looks like a significant step forward in the search for alternative fuel sources.  While they may not replace the commercial gas we use every day, biofuel experiments put energy use into the spotlight.

So just how does beer get turned into an energy source?

Brewing a biofuel

In any normal brewing process, yeast converts sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol.  And, like many manufacturing processes, there’s plenty of waste left at the end.

DB Exports took 58,000 litres of yeast slurry – which would have otherwise been discarded or used as animal feed – and used it to make 30,000 litres of ethanol.

This ethanol was mixed with petrol to create a fuel that’s significantly lower in greenhouse gas emissions than traditional fuels.

So why should we care?

Any new fuel that can help to reduce our carbon emissions should be considered a step in the right direction.  But one of the main attractions of using biofuel – as opposed to fossil fuels – is its sustainability.

Fossil fuels can take millions of years to form, which means, as far as humans are concerned, we’re going to run out sooner or later.  But the production of ethanol and other fuels by organic matter – whether that’s beer, corn or algae – can be measured in days or weeks.

That gives us a level of control over our energy sources that we just can’t have with fossil fuels: in theory, we could replenish our fuel year after year through sustainable farming practices.

But will it take off?

Unfortunately, like many great ideas, the reality isn’t always as simple as the theory.

There’s only so much land on our planet that we can devote to growing organic matter – and the world’s demands for food are more urgent than its demands for petrol.

In the UK, for example, biofuel use in 2009 required around 1.4 million hectares of overseas farmland – an area roughly the size of Northern Ireland – just to provide 3% of our transport fuel.  That’s a lot of potential food sacrificed for a small gain in fuel.

That’s why ‘second generation’ biofuel sources, such as Brewtroleum – which use the waste products of organic matter already grown for some other purpose – could help to avoid the loss of valuable farming land, while still letting us put environmentally-friendly biofuels to good use.

Would you buy a boiler that runs on beer-based biofuel?  And should companies be doing more to get the most out of their waste products?  Leave your comments below.

*The content of this blog post is intended for general information purposes only and shall not be construed as advice or recommendation on any subject matter. Information given shall in no case exempt you from conducting your own checks.

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