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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Using Lactose to Make Biofuel

I'm on record as calling the use of food crops to make ethanol an idiocy. See Milk Prices at Record High.

Biofuel is not an intrinsically bad notion. There are a couple of pathways that make far more sense. One is to use land that is not suitable for food crops to grow product that can be converted. Switchgrass is one such plant.

Another pathway is to use material that is currently being thrown out as waste. Various sources of cellulose, like wood pulp, is already being converted this way.

And speaking of whey, he punned, whey is another current waste product. Whey is the part of milk that is mostly thrown away during cheesemaking, the casein protein being the useful product there. Manufacturers have been frantically trying for many years to figure out ways to use whey. You can make lactose from it, but that's a limited market.

So what about biofuel?

Where else but Wisconsin, the cheese state, would this story come from? Liz Welter of the Marshfield NewsHerald gave this report:

A fledgling business that produces ethanol from the waste product of cheese-making is ready to take wing.

A plant to commercially make the fuel from waste produced at Nasonville Dairy and other dairies will soon be underway near the cheese-making facility, said Joe VanGroll, co-owner of Dubay Ingredients and Grand Meadow Energy of Stratford.


Earlier attempts to make ethanol from waste weren't practical because the waste, whey, is a highly-sought commodity due to its protein -- a popular additive in both human and animal food products.

But VanGroll and [his partner, Clay] Boeger have a secret recipe.

"It's like the recipe for Coke, it's in a locked box. Only Clay and I know it," VanGroll said.

Dubay Ingredients uses waste that already has protein removed. This is called permeate -- basically water and a bit of lactose. The permeate is processed to remove the lactose, which is used to create ethanol. The permeate water becomes purified drinking water, VanGroll explained.

"We're using waste to make ethanol and there is no waste when we make it. All of the by-products can be used," Boeger said.

The world is awash in whey. Annual worldwide production exceeds 80 million metric tons. Approximately nine metric tons of whey results from the production of each metric ton of cottage cheese. Even diverting a small portion of that stream - some of which already is converted into a variety of useful and profitable chemicals, to be sure - would help with our long term needs for alternative fuel sources. Remember, no one solution will likely be found. Dozens, if not hundreds, of ingenious ways of producing biofuels are the near-term future.

Of course, no figures, either for production or costs, were given in Welter's article. This pilot plant may fail to scale to industrial size or may simply produce fuels that cost too much. Then again, what is the cost of waste? What is the price of adding tons of waste to landfills or other dumps for garbage? Let's hope that whey-based biofuels is one practical solution of the many that will be needed.

Blessed are the cheesemakers.

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