Hot New Feedstock?

There’s room for expansion in beverage waste-to-ethanol production
By Holly Jessen | April 15, 2011

The concept of converting alcohol or soda pop waste to ethanol has been generating buzz lately. There’s just something about it that causes people to sit up and take notice.

It’s not a new idea. The Merrick/Coors 3 MMgy ethanol plant in Golden, Colo., has been producing ethanol from waste beer since 1996, says Steve Wagner, vice president. In addition, two plants owned by Parallel Products in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and Louisville, Ky., produce a combined 10 MMgy from beverage waste such as alcoholic beverages, juice and pop.

There are several sources of waste in beer manufacturing that can be used as an ethanol feedstock, Wagner tells EPM. One is from the yeast generated in the beer production process—as it is dried, the yeast condensate contains about 13 percent ethanol. Some waste occurs during the packaging process—any beer that spills when filling bottles can go into ethanol production. Finally, there’s aged discards or reclaimed beer that didn’t pass taste tests, he says, adding that all beer makers have similar waste streams. “Like Bill Coors used to say, ‘A waste stream is just a revenue stream that hasn’t been taken advantage of’,” he says.

Waste beverage-to-ethanol production is a big emerging market right now and there is room for expansion, Wagner tells EPM. Waste-derived ethanol is considered an advanced biofuel by the U.S. EPA and the renewable fuels standard calls for increasing amounts of advanced and cellulosic biofuels through 2022 while the corn ethanol requirement is limited to 15 billion gallons, he points out. That creates opportunities for obligated parties looking to fulfill those requirements.
In fact, Wagner is actively working on a project to build another ethanol plant in upstate New York. The proposed plant would produce ethanol from a variety of waste or food-derived feedstocks, such as pop. Like the existing beverage waste ethanol plants, the facility will be small, perhaps 2 to 3 MMgy.

A waste feedstock typically costs companies money to dispose of, Wagner says. Using it for ethanol production can mean that the company disposing of it can reduce their disposal costs and the ethanol production company gets a feedstock plus a tipping fee for receiving it. Another possible model is a partnership to share profits between the company disposing of the waste product and the ethanol plant. 

Danielle Bell-mer, an Oklahoma State University professor, has studied turning waste pop into ethanol and found it’s not that difficult. She started the process in 2009 when she was contacted by a recycling company looking for an alternate way to get rid of waste pop. The company adjusts the pH level of the waste product and sends it to a local wastewater treatment plant, which can be costly, since such facilities only accept limited quantities.

Bellmer and her students added a nitrogen source and a common dry yeast to the waste pop. In three to 10 days it had fermented into ethanol. The 12 to 13 percent sugar found in one two liter of pop converts to about 6 to 7 percent alcohol. “It doesn’t get much easier than that, really,” said the associate professor of biosystems engineering in the food and agricultural products research center.

The catch is that ethanol production from waste beverages wouldn’t likely be economically viable if the feedstock had to be transported long distances. Ideally, this type of plant would be located nearby or even co-located with a bottling plant. “What’s great about it is that people can relate to it,” she says. “We are turning waste into fuel.”

—Holly Jessen