The processes that produce the legal adult beverages beer and tequila could soon also power your vehicle using emerging biofuel technologies. Scientists are hoping to harness the energy from biomaterials wasted after brewing as well as wasted plant material from tequila production in attempts to increase the returns extracted from these resources and cut down on waste.

Scientists at Cornell University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Washington University in St. Louis are working with Anheuser-Busch InBev, the producers of Budweiser beer, to search for new ways to utilize biomaterial from breweries’ wastewater bioreactors. Scientists Jeffrey J. Werner and Largus T. Angenent have collected bioreactor sludge samples from nine Anheuser-Busch InBev breweries and analyzed the material for different bacteria species that are responsible for producing methane gas in the breweries’ large bioreactor tanks.

Bacteria microbes

Bacteria microbes crucial to treating wastewater from beer breweries may be the key to producing a biofuel by-product that could be used in alternative fuel vehicles. Credit: Angenent Lab/Cornell University

Anheuser-Busch InBev has already taken an innovative lead by using the methane produced by these microbes to provide up to 20 percent of the company’s heat energy use, saving millions of dollars every year. But, the scientists are trying to set the bar higher in hopes that new advances in biotechnology could have these microbial communities producing carboxylates, the precursors to the alkanes found in fuels.

“This question of linking function with microbial communities is something people have wanted to understand for a very long time,” said Angenent. “We are going to shape these communities so they start making what we want.”

If all goes according to the scientists’ plan, these microbial communities will be producing biofuels that could power alternative fuel vehicles of the future, rather than using methane gas. The initial study “Bacterial Community Structures Are Unique and Resilient in Full-Scale Bioenergy Systems” was published in the Feb. 22 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another innovation in biofuel technology may mean tequila is not just for Margaritas anymore. Researchers with Mexico’s Agave Project are saying that agave, the plant that is used to produce tequila, could be part of an “energy revolution” for the biofuels industry.

Agave plants grow in semi-arid regions where many other plants do not grow, and they are resilient enough to endure both extreme temperatures and droughts. They also require hardly any inputs in terms of fertilizers, pesticides or irrigation. Other reasons researchers find the agave attractive for biofuels are that the agave habitat does not compete with global carbon sinks and that a large portion of the plant is currently wasted during tequila production – parts that could be used right now to produce fuel.

The agave plant

The agave plant, a main ingredient in tequila, grows in harsh, semi-arid and high temperature climates, and researchers say that the plants biomass left over after tequila production could be converted to biofuel. Credit: Stan Shebs/Wikimedia Creative Commons

For large tequila producers like Brown-Forman and Fortune Brands, agave provides an opportunity for a win-win situation. Biofuel production from agave plants would not hinder tequila production because an estimated 80 percent of the agave plant is wasted during tequila production. Researchers say almost all of this wasted biomass could be used for fuel without impeding on the plant’s tequila uses.

According to Arturo Velez, CEO and founder of the Agave Project, 20 percent of the world is semi-arid and unable to sustain certain crops such as corn, soy or sugarcane. The prospect of using this land, like the American southwest, for agave cultivation could increase the market capacity of biofuels. For example, Velez said Mexico alone is home to 80 million acres of potential agave farmland that could produce 5,600 tons of dry biomass – the equivalent of meeting the United States’ transportation fuel needs for up to one year.

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