Cheese could be an innovative energy source. A group of researchers from two Argentinian universities managed to produce biofuel from whey, which is a polluting waste resulting from cheese production. The National University of Río Cuarto (UNRC) and the National University of Villa María (UNVM) were the institutions that collaborated in this study.
The result of this research was bioethanol sufficiently pure to be used as vehicle fuel. To this end, the researchers isolated microorganisms capable to use the lactose in cheese whey.
A byproduct of the cheese industry
In cheese production, every kilogram of cheese produces, on average, nine liters of whey. This is a clear liquid made of 95 percent water, 4 percent lactose, and 1 percent protein.
This scientific breakthrough represents a significant contribution to environmental sustainability. Whey is one of the most pollutant residues produced in the food industry and it contains a high level of organic matter.
Doctor Lilia Cavaglieri was in charge of the research team. Cavaglieri is currently the lead researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and also works as a professor of the Microbiology Department at (UNRC). Other scientists that collaborated in this project were Dr. Mariana Montenegro, from the Villa Maria Center of Research and Transference (CIT) and Microbiologist Carla Aminahuel, Biology PhD student.
Advantages of Bioethanol
Bioethanol is an alcohol produced from different agricultural products, including corn, sorghum, wheat, sugarcane, and even biomass. It is an ecological energy source that gains more and more worldwide support each year. Currently, it is presented as an alternative to oil or natural gas.
This product in a gasoline oxygenate. When used as an additive, it improves the fuel’s octane rating and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, it reduces the proportion of lead and other additives that can be dangerous to people’s health.
Its advocates argue that it has a wide range of environmental and economic advantages. They assure that this fuel reduces dependence on fossil fuels and decreases pollution, adding that its use improves the engine’s combustion and theoretically it could be used in all types of vehicles.
Despite its advantages, production expenses are still very high. Hence, this type of research is very important.
In Latin America, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia are at the lead in biofuel production, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL). Little by little, it has become an option of an energy source that could compete with oil. These countries have technological advances that enable the use of flexible fuels, in terms of consumption and supply, especially in sectors like transportation.
An abundance of raw material
Argentina is the world’s third largest cheese producer. Additionally, the country’s cheese industry generates around 9 million tons of whey a year and, in the process, discards about 60 percent. In these cases, it is handled as an industrial effluent to avoid the contamination of the ground and water contamination.
Minimizing the environmental impact of whey entails an enormous economic cost for cheese producers. Furthermore, producers need a physical space to place this waste.
Nowadays, many companies discard whey through pipelines connected directly into the ground without any sort of treatment. This is why an alternative use would provide a positive environmental and economic impact.
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