A distillery known for vodka distilled from milk byproduct has partnered with a U.S. dairy producer who will use the eastern Ontario company’s process to produce eight million litres of ethanol fuel that is better for the environment than conventional transportation fuel.
Dairy Distillery in Almonte takes milk permeate — the lactose and minerals remaining after milk undergoes filtration — adds yeast and ferments the permeate into a low-alcohol “wine.”
That weak milk permeate wine can then be distilled into a stronger ethanol alcohol the company claims to be the world’s lowest carbon-intensity ethanol.
A similar process is used to create Dairy Distillery’s “Vodkow” spirit.
“We always knew there was a big application for this sugar,” said Dairy Distillery founder and CEO Omid McDonald at the company’s headquarters just west of Ottawa.
McDonald didn’t realize how big until he was contacted by the Michigan Milk Producers Association, a 107-year-old co-op representing about 1,000 dairy producers in that state, as well as in Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin.
The organization is a major producer of waste permeate annually and had plans to bottle it up to sell on liquor store shelves, but that plan didn’t add up, said president Joe Diglio.
That’s when it decided to build a bigger version of the distillery in Constantine, Mich., to convert the milk permeate into an alcohol.
The alcohol is then blended with transportation fuel to make permeate ethanol they believe will offset 14,500 tonnes of carbon each year.
“You start to realize that these byproducts have opportunities,” said Diglio, who believes the offset will reduce the carbon footprint of the milk processed at the new plant by five per cent.
The group aims to hit a U.S. dairy industry goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Be careful of ‘green-washing,’ expert says
The plan might look good for dairy experts, but milk ethanol-powered cars could be a little ambitious.
“We do want to be vigilant about green-washing,” said Heather McLeod-Kilmurray, who teaches environmental law at the University of Ottawa.
She said the diversion of a food waste stream into a fuel for the mid-term future is probably a good first step.
McLeod-Kilmurray did warn of relying on fuel sources when cleaner power innovations come along.
Ethanol production at the Michigan plant is expected to begin in early 2025.
“You never know when you start out the door where it will take you and you have to be open to new ideas,” said McDonald about the distillery’s process growing in the U.S.
“The hope is that once we get it going there, it will be adopted here, as well.”