Are We Ready for Beer-Powered Cars? New Zealand Thinks So

Are We Ready for Beer-Powered Cars? New Zealand Thinks So


Climate change and the global energy crisis have both escalated to the point where something drastic must be done, and fast. The potentially dire circumstances are enough to drive anyone to the bottle, and for a few people, it already has—albeit for honorable reasons.

While other breweries are busy perfecting gimmicky seasonal brews to satisfy the barflies and frat boys, the minds behind DB Export have been hard at work developing their very own recipe for an alternative fuel—and it comes from an unconventional source.

The New Zealand-based brewery has come up with the world’s first commercially obtainable, beer-derived biofuel, and is now pumping a limited quantity through 60 Gull service stations across North Island.

This fuel, which they’ve appropriately dubbed “Brewtroleum,”exploits the excess sediments left behind by the fermentation process and repurposes this inactive yeast solution, which would otherwise go to local stock farmers or be thrown away as waste. Around 15,300 gallons of the slurry were sent to a refinery to be used in the production of 79,250 gallons of biofuel. It’s expected that this initial batch will last six weeks, according to company spokesman Sean O’Donnell.

A Non-Food-Based Source of Ethanol

In truth, it’s a wonder why humanity had not arrived at this idea sooner; ethanol has always been an important part of our slow transition away from fossil fuels—and, in turn, a part of any debate about how to reverse climate change. Unfortunately, the world at large has been slow to adopt ethanol, in part because it has always competed with food crops. Derived from corn, ethanol tends to be seen more as a threat to world food production than as our savior from fossil fuels.

Because of this, the efficiency with which ethanol is manufactured is of great importance.

The rate at which we can produce these fuels is part of what helps us differentiate between different kinds of alternative fuels. As a result, there is a marked difference between generation one and generation two biofuels. The former refers to any biofuel made in a sustainable way, while the latter describes that which is made purely from waste products. As you might imagine, generation one takes quite a bit longer to produce.

According to a recent article from the Union of Concerned Scientists, ethanol is currently being derived in its largest quantities from generation one sources—specifically, from corn kernels grown in the U.S. and sugarcane grown in Brazil. The problem with this conventional approach to ethanol production is that it requires access to acres of farmland, while generation two biofuels do not. Therein lies the benefit of non-food-based alternatives. To date, these alternatives include tree trimmings, fast-growing grasses, wheat straw, and now yeast.

The use of generation two biofuels is one of the more attractive solutions in play right now for weaning humanity off our dependency on crude oil. That they don’t compete directly with food crops is a significant point in their favor.

Getting the Ratio Right

Ethanol produced in the way pioneered by DB Export represents an important step towards a cleaner burning future, especially since Brewtroleum is fully compatible with vehicles already on the road.

Until now, the rate of ethanol adoption has been constrained by what’s came to be known as the “blend wall“—that is, the ratio at which a petroleum-ethanol blend can no longer be used by conventional automobiles. The compatibility and performance of ethanol drops off sharply once it reaches a ratio of one part ethanol and nine parts petroleum.

Earlier this year, representatives from the Renewable Fuels Association testified at a public hearing about the blend wall. Geoff Cooper and Randy Doyal suggested that the EPA had overstepped its legal authority by basing Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) on “perceived capacity constraints”—in other words, the blend wall. “By embracing the ‘blend wall’ concept,” Doyal said, “the EPA proposal not only violates the law, but also undermines the incentive to biofuel production and distribution capacity, and allows oil companies to only blend as much renewable fuel as they are comfortable using.”

The good news is that DB Export has effectively side-stepped the entire issue by coming up with a mixture that is functionally equivalent to the E10 found at local service stations and pumped into modern cars. This fact alone won’t be enough to stop the looming energy crisis, but it’s a hugely important innovation, and one that should prove vital in our efforts to turn our fortunes around.

Brewtroleum and Beyond

Due to an overwhelmingly positive public response, DB Export will be rolling out a series of innovations as part of its “Made by Doing” advertising campaign, all in an attempt to further this initiative and create greater public awareness.

Whether or not Brewtroleum will be feasible as a long-term business venture (both logistically and financially) remains unclear at this stage. With luck, other breweries will take notice and follow suit, developing their own methods for turning their suds into sustainable biofuel. If they do, we may soon see a true revolution in the automotive industry. We’re already well on our way to roads filled with driverless cars, but imagine what would be possible if we also started powering those cars with waste from the beer industry. The potential really is limitless.

It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more companies Stateside thinking outside the box the way DB Export is. Still, it’s hard not to be encouraged by the recent rise in civic involvement on the part of local energy companies. It can be too easy to write off anything to do with Big Energy as part of a lurching corporate beast, but the truth is that there are some great things happening all across the world in the name of sustainability and corporate responsibility. We may finally be turning the corner on what many are calling our single greatest worldwide threat. DB Exports’ triumph is proof that progress and innovation need not be constrained by the glacial speed of the bureaucratic process.

There’s still a long way to go, but for once things are starting to look a little better. So here’s to a brighter future when environmental activism means driving to the service station and picking up a 6-pack for the car. Who wouldn’t drink to that?