Building a new industry from what we do best...
What is the one thing we do better probably than any other country in the world? I suppose building cars would be up there. And our pharmaceuticals and high tech industries are pretty good, too. When I look at some of the activities in plastics and new materials such as graphene, I can see the UK leading the way. Those of a controversial bent might throw banking into the mix. Most recently, many of the biggest movies in the business have been made in the UK.
You could most likely make a case for any of those and many others but I'm going to suggest, without wanting to sound downbeat, that the thing we do best in this country is to create waste. Whichever way you look at it, it's a byproduct of our consumer driven society - either the waste that we throw away after buying something, or the waste material that's produced when something gets to the end of its life, or the waste that's produced in making that thing in the first place.
However green we try to become, in one form or another there will always be waste. But that doesn't mean we have to be wasteful with our waste. There is surely a huge industry to built on dealing with that waste creatively to solve some of the key challenges of our age. And top of that list has to be biofuel. A report produced a couple of months ago, backed by the likes of BA, Novozymes, WWF and Virgin Airways, argued that fuel from waste could replace 16% of all the fuel used on European roads by 2030, significantly reducing our reliance on fuel imports as well as boosting rural economies. The researchers calculated that the EU generates some 900 million tonnes of waste paper, food, wood and plant materials each year, with a quarter of this suitable for turning into biofuel.
Now, I'll take your 16% and raise you another several, because one of the other things the UK is really good at is making whiskey. And this is very interesting because a spin-out from Napier University in Edinburgh, Celtic Renewables, has repurposed an age old fermentation process to produce biofuel from the waste products left over in whiskey production. By mixing the spent barley kernels with the liquid residue pot ale, and fermenting it with clostridium bacteria, Celtic Renewables is able to produce biobutanol - an advanced biofuel which is a drop-in replacement for petrol. The process works in the laboratory, and now Celtic Renewables has funding in place to built a £100m test plant in Ghent, Belgium.
Whilst there is a certain level of uncertainty concerning European attitudes towards green energy at the highest political levels, there is surely no doubt that a slightly higher level of self sufficiency wouldn't go amiss. When Russia turned off its gas supply to Ukraine for the third time in a decade, the threat to supplies more widely sent ripples across Europe, since a hefty percentage of the west's supply from Russia is delivered via Ukraine. And the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are a further threat to fuel supply stability.
Ultimately, successful commercialisation of advanced biofuels in Europe will surely depend on a level of political leadership and vision that is generally sorely lacking. But perhaps the UK's entrepreneurial spirit can win the day. And if biofuel from whiskey is the way forward, I'll drink to that.
Industrial Technology - NEWS