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New research by chemists at the University of Bristol have uncovered some sudsy news: beer is a key ingredient in the process that could lead to the next-generation of sustainable fuels. In short, their research shows how to turn beer into fuel.

Why would we want to turn beer into fuel?

One of the most common alternative fuels is ethanol; in the United States, the vast majority of regular gasoline at the pumps has been mixed with 10% bioethanol (dubbed E10 in the industry). Not only that, but many vehicles on the road are “Flex Fuel”-capable, which means they’re capable of running off of a mix of 15% regular gasoline and 85% bioethanol (E85). These blends reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost octane, and save both consumers and manufacturers money.

But there are downsides to ethanol, too. It’s got a lower energy density than gasoline, so the same volume doesn’t take you as far; it mixes a bit too easily with water, causing problems with storage and engine injections; and in some circumstances, it can cause buildup in engines if proper care isn’t taken.

Butanol, on the other hand, doesn’t have many of these problems, and carries most of the same benefits to greenhouse gas reduction and potential cost savings that ethanol provides. The sticking point so far for butanol is that it’s more difficult to make, especially from sustainable sources.  The researchers at the University of Bristol have been pursuing the dream of easy conversion of ethanol to butanol for years.

Beer shows that turning ethanol into butanol is very possible

This is where beer comes in, according to ScienceDaily:

Alcoholic drinks are an ideal model for industrial ethanol fermentation broths — ethanol for fuel is essentially made using a brewing process.  The technology used to convert ethanol into butanol is called a catalyst — these are chemicals which can speed up and control a chemical reaction and are already widely used in the petrochemical industry. The Bristol team’s key finding is that their catalysts will convert beer (or specifically, the ethanol in beer) into butanol.

This is significant because beer is a pretty good model for the kind of catalytic process that will need to happen when the process is scaled up and applied to mass-produced ethanol. If we can do it to beer, then large quantities of fuel-quality ethanol being catalyzed into butanol isn’t a pipe dream, but closer than ever to being a reality:

There are ways to obtain ethanol for fuel from fermentation that produces something that chemically is very much like beer — so beer is an excellent readily available model to test our technology.

Research team leader Duncan Wass had this to say about the team’s strategy to turn beer into fuel:

“Turning beer into petrol was a bit of fun, and something to do with the leftovers of the lab Christmas party, but it has a serious point. Beer is actually an excellent model for the mixture of chemicals we would need to use in a real industrial process, so it shows this technology is one step closer to reality.”

We say, cheers to that!

SOURCE: ScienceDaily and Alternative Fuels Data Center
PHOTO: Adam Barhan