Beer Brewing Bonus: Biofuel

molecular-level

If you’ve been searching for an environmentally friendly excuse to head to the pub for a pint, a group of scientists from Cornell University may be able to help.  The scientists looked at over 400,000 gene sequences from brewery wastewater.  Uncovered, were the genes of the microbes best suited to converting the wastewater into biofuel.

Anheuser-Busch InBev provided access to wastewater from nine U.S. breweries.  Inside million-gallon bioreactor tanks used to process the wastewater, some of the microbes produce methane, not unlike a cow.  The methane produced provides for 20% of the heating needs at the breweries, providing significant cost savings for Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Each bioreactor was cultivating both common and unique bacteria.  Some of the bacteria were hardy and other populations too small.  Like Goldilocks, the scientists found the microbes that were just right.

The communities of microbes best suited to producing methane are being investigated further.  The scientists hope to learn more about how changes in environment, such as temperature, affect the microbes.  Ultimately the hope is to “shape” the microbial communities to produce, not methane, but the basic building blocks of carbon fuels.

Biofuels suffer from several flaws.  While it is not the case here, the use of food crops, such as corn, to produce biofuels is damaging to the global food system and a dubious use of water and other resources.  Fossil fuels are used in the production of biofuels, adding to their emissions footprint.

Biofuels are a carbon fuel at their base.  When biofuels are burned they produce carbon dioxide.  Compared to emissions from fossil fuels biofuels burn clean.  Referred to as “carbon neutral”, in a best case scenario, biofuels are the equivalent of treading water.  Treading water alone will not save you and biofuels alone will not save the planet.

Brewing beer produces wastewater.  By capturing and using the methane produced, Anheuser-Busch InBev uses what would otherwise have gone to waste.  Additionally they reduce their consumption of other fuel, which may have been more damaging.  The process may not be perfect but it certainly steps in the right direction.

So the next time you sidle up to the watering hole, give some consideration to the wastewater brewing beer produces.  Anheuser-Busch InBev is using their wastewater to act sustainably.  Regarding the wastewater produced by consuming beer, it appears water conservation would be the central issue, making the adage of “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” seem like a good place to start.

Photo Credit: dullhunk

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