Wisconsin developer provides cheese industry solution

By | June 01, 2006
Joe Van Groll feels he has the solution for two of Wisconsin's largest problems—cheese production waste and fuel demand. He's developed a process that turns cheese whey permeate into fuel ethanol.

Wisconsin, the nation's leading cheese producer by far, creates significant amounts of cheese whey permeate from its 100-plus cheese facilities. Cheese whey permeate is a by-product of cheese manufacturing. "It's basically sugar water," said Van Groll, owner of DuBay Ingredients LLC.

Expunging the product has become an issue for cheese producers. A few manufacturers evaporate the whey permeate to produce whey permeate solids. Larger companies typically ship this product overseas.

However, many smaller producers dispose of the whey permeate directly on farmland, which can pose an environmental risk. In response, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is tightening regulations for the land spreading of the product, according to Van Groll.

Van Groll's process looks to provide the solution. He's spent eight years developing a process that creates fuel alcohol from the permeate. The process ferments the whey permeate and removes the alcohol. The remaining solids are separated into a high-protein probiotic cattle feed. The remaining liquid is potable water, which can be recirculated in the ethanol process.

A pilot facility in Stratford, Wis., currently produces 5,000 gallons of ethanol per day using the process. One hundred gallons of cheese whey permeate yields 10 gallons of fuel-grade ethanol, Van Groll said. The key behind the process is a strain of yeast specifically targeting the lactose in cheese whey permeates. "It's a relatively simple process," Van Groll said.

The state's Agricultural Development and Diversification Program awarded Van Groll with a $29,000 grant to research and develop the process.

Van Groll plans to begin construction of a 5 MMgy project near another Wisconsin cheese plant in the coming months. He hopes to strategically locate three or four of the facilities throughout the state.

Van Groll said he's received a great deal of attention—as far away as Japan—over the process. He expects to sell the ethanol directly to fuel distributors rather than large oil refiners in order to avoid blending costs. "It will increase the profit lines for the cheese plant," Van Groll said.