Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Will Cars of the Future Run on Distillery Waste?

A good, science-y picture from a different UK CAER project.
The University of Kentucky has a fascinating story out today about using stillage to make batteries and other useful products. It is in the experimental stage now, but the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research has partnered with Danville's Wilderness Trail Distillery to test the viability of the idea.

Stillage is a by-product of the distillation process. Unlike scotch, American whiskey is usually distilled from a mash, not a wash. In Scotland, Ireland, Japan, and most other places that make whiskey, solids and liquids are separated after all of the soluble starch in the grain has been liquefied. The liquid portion, known as the wash, goes forward into fermentation and distillation. The moist solids are considered waste and either used as animal feed or simply discarded.

In North America (U.S. and Canada) it is a little different because although the soluble starch is liquefied, just like in Scotland, the grain solids are not removed. Still known as mash it is a slurry, like a very thin oatmeal. It stays that way through fermentation and distillation. What comes out at the end of the process, after all of the alcohol has been removed through distillation, is stillage.

Keeping all of the solids adds flavor but American distillers do it mostly because they can. Since column stills are used for the first distillation instead of pot stills, the early removal of solids is unnecessary.

American distillers typically do separate their stillage into wet and dry components. It's a pretty simple process that leaves a few solids in the wet portion and a bit of moisture in the dry, but it is effective for its purpose. The wet portion is used as setback in the sour mash process. It is mixed with a new mash prior to fermentation. The wet stillage adds a little acid to the fresh mash, which the yeast likes, along with some yeast nutrients, which the yeast also likes.

Setback ratios vary but 1:3 is about the highest, so plenty of stillage is left over. The leftover wet stillage goes into the sewers. The dry portion (which is still pretty wet) goes to one of three places: (1) directly to farmers, who come and get it, for livestock feed; (2) processing that removes the rest of the moisture, which gives it a longer shelf life (it's still used as livestock feed); or (3) into the sewers.

The problem with stillage is that as a direct by-product of the process, the amount of stillage goes up as your production goes up. If there aren't enough nearby farmers willing to come and get it every day, option (1) isn't available. Although stillage is free to the farmer, the farmer has to pick it up and transport it. Even rural distilleries are having a hard time giving their stillage away under those terms, a problem that is compounded as the amount of stillage goes up.

Option (2) isn't great either because the processing (drying and other processes) needed to make the stillage something that can be packaged and stored is expensive. Although it's a good feed and does sell, as a product it barely breaks even, a situation that only gets worse as increased supply pushes the price still lower.

Option (3) is undesirable because not all municipal sewage systems can accept it and even when they can, it's adding to the waste stream when it could be used for something productive. If this project (which uses the wet portion) can find some new, value-added ways to use this material, that will be good for the whiskey industry and the environment.

Wilderness Trail Distillery is the natural partner for this project because it is a bourbon distillery run by scientists. The same folks own and operate Ferm Solutions, which supplies yeast and other products and services to distilleries in Kentucky and beyond. Formerly in downtown Danville, they have moved their operations to a new, much larger facility west of town. It is open to the public for tours.

That it is Wilderness Trail and not one of the majors involved in this is another example of how much the micro-distillery movement is contributing to the industry and to local communities.


Richnimrod said...

Let me understand this. The wet portion is all that is being considered for this product? The (not quite) dry portion is still to be used as agricultural feed (pigs/cattle mainly, I assume)? Doesn't sound like a big difference. How much saving (or deferred cost, if you prefer) is expected?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The wet is being used in this experiment. That doesn't mean they won't find ways to add value to the un-separated or dry portions in the future.

ChadderCheese said...

Great article on a really promising use for stillage.

As a relatively minor point, correct me if I'm wrong, but while I agree with the main point that American distillers do grain-in distillation because they can, the reason is not because a column still can accommodate grains while a pot still can't, but rather because the malted barley used in other distilling regions of the world - when not lautered before the fermentation stage - can create tannins during the fermentation process that would make for bad drinking.

American pot still set-ups making something other than whiskies with malted barley as their base can do grain-in distillation just as well as column still operations so long as the pot still set-up stirs the mash, either manually or with an agitator.

Anonymous said...

The University of Kentucky can use either the wet or dry portions of the stillage to make the products for energy storage but because most of the stillage volume is in the liquid form, we choose to focus on the liquid. Spent beer grains also work nicely! Thanks

Rob said...

Chuck - is the practice of lautering in Scotland and Ireland for malt whiskeys not linked to tradition (i.e. a time before there were mixers that could be installed onto pots, and therefore lautering was needed to wholly avoid scorching)?

As for tannins: they are a large class of compounds, and I am unsure of the specific varieties that are present in malted barley, but I wonder about the extent to which they will actually distill over. They are relatively large compounds, which usually (but not solely) translates to higher boiling points. And since oak tannin extraction during maturation is an unavoidable and desired phenomenon (with time, so as to facilitate oxidation), is the reason for lautering really to avoid malt tannins?

Chuck Cowdery said...

When I ask Kentucky distillers why they distill on the grain, they tell me it's "because we can." Maybe that involves issues other than equipment, but that's the answer.

potsy said...

Most commercial stills are steam jacketed for heating, so grain/particulates in the still shouldn't be a problem.

Heating with an electric element in the still is a different story...

Chuck Cowdery said...

"Into the sewers" isn't quite right. It is disposed of that way in some cases. In others it is treated and released.