Using Whey to Make Ethanol

Whey, the protein and sugar-laden by-product of cheesemaking, may turn out to be an important raw material in the manufacture of ethanol. Sometimes seen as a problem of disposal, whey can in fact be reused for a number of other applications. Ricotta cheese is traditionally made from the whey left over after mozzarella making; whey is also used as a food supplement for both livestock and humans (as an additive in muscle-building supplements and other foods). But since whey contains a good deal of milk sugar (lactose), scientists are researching ways to turn that sugar into ethanol, a fuel that promises to eclipse crude oil in the next decade.

President Bush referred to ethanol in his 2006 State of the Union Address, and since then the media has been buzzing with news about it. Most of the ethanol in this country is made from corn sugar, and there are some that say that this method is inefficient because it takes so much fossil fuel just to grow the corn. Brazil, one of the pioneering countries in the field of alternative energy, uses cane sugar to produce ethanol. Researchers in this country are currently trying to find a way to produce ethanol from cellulose, a sugar found in the hard cell walls of plants. This could mean creating fuels from materials that are traditionally land-filled as garbage: corn husks, paper, scrap wood, etc.

And now the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture has given a grant to a researcher in that state to study whether it would be possible to manufacture ethanol from the lactose in whey. If this indeed proves to be possible, instead of seeing whey as the by-product of cheese production, we may end up calling cheese the by-product of ethanol production!

Full story here.