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Petrol latte for Kiwis in dairy biofuel push

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Desperate Kiwi farmers, struggling for ways to get rid of poisonous dairy waste products, have found a way to turn them into biofuel.

Stuff.co.nz reports today that New Zealand oil firm Gull has launched it's "Force 10" fuel, a blend of ordinary petrol and 10 per cent "ethanol made from milk".

The ethanol in Force 10 is produced by Anchor Ethanol, a subsidiary of dairy colossus Fonterra.

"We are serious about providing motorists with real choice and leading the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions," NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark was quoted as saying.

Gull manager Dave Bodger told Stuff: "If there's no downside for the choice, middle New Zealand will go for the green option."

Gull Petroleum chief executive Wayne Ferrell apparently added that petrol with the bio-ethanol additive would not only lower greenhouse gas emissions but would give motorists more power and a higher performance.

All that seems a wee bit counter-intuitive. There are those who'd argue that even bio-ethanol made from plants doesn't actually reduce carbon emissions overall. And cattle are usually thought to be a serious carbon burden. Using cows to turn biomass into milk and then making ethanol out of the milk seems extremely unlikely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, however, that isn't what's happening. No new dairy herds will appear as a result of the Kiwi latte-petrol push.

According to the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (pdf), Anchor Ethanol produces its alcohol from whey, a troublesome byproduct of the dairy industry. The dairy industry is huge in New Zealand, and Anchor Ethanol's parent company Fonterra is always trying to make it huger. It invented "Riccocino, the world's first microwaveable frothed-milk coffee", for instance, after Fonterra scientists "noticed that overheating chocolate ice cream resulted in a foamy, hot liquid". Fonterra also proudly takes credit for "Chesdale chocolate cheese slices".

All this cutting-edge dairy goodness results in a lot of whey.

"The disposal of whey is a worldwide problem," say the NZ chemistry boffins. "Large quantities of whey are produced as a by-product... this must be disposed of or processed in an environmentally acceptable way... [It] can quickly deplete oxygen levels in natural water systems..."

Just pouring the stuff into rivers or oceans won't do: all the fish would die. So the Kiwi cow-boffins brought in new technology.

"The technology to process deproteinated whey into ethyl alcohol was developed in Europe about 20 years ago," apparently, "and was purchased from Ireland by the Anchor Ethanol Company in the late 1970s... New Zealand now produces much more ethanol than is needed."

This is despite some amazing ingenuity in fobbing the stuff off on people. New Zealand industry can turn milk and cheese byproduct into meths, white spirit, deodorant, hairspray, cosmetics, paint, ink, industrial solvent and - of course - beverages, including "vodka, rum etc".

Oh, and "top quality perfume".

But even with the Kiwis and "markets as diverse as Sri Lanka and Japan" using as much cheese-based perfume and rum as they could stand, it seems there was still ethanol left over. So now they're burning the stuff in their cars.

It's fairly hard to say, as NZ Prime Minister Clark does, that this is a case of New Zealand "leading the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions", the more so as the whey distilleries use quite a lot of hot steam, presumably generated by burning fossil fuel as in other biofuel plants worldwide.

It probably wouldn't have sounded as good, though, for Clark to say that Kiwis are clearing up the poisonous slurry produced by their booming chocolate-cheese-slice industry. ®

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