Economic necessity is the mother of invention. Just ask Wolfgang Bengel. The research scientist, a technical director with Germany’s BMP Biomasse Projekt, is tackling one of the continent’s growing environmental conundrums: what to do with all the used grains and wastewater that result from brewing beer. Historically, European breweries have given by-products to farmers to use as fertilizer and cattle feed. But declines in Europe’s beef market and new environmental regulations have combined to upset the delicate relationship, shouldering brewers with the added expense of waste disposal—a considerable cost. One possible answer, the one Bengel now evangelizes (along with Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada), is to convert it into fuel for cars and energy for use in the brewing process.

“Beer making is energy intensive — you boil stuff, use hot water and steam and then use electric energy for cooling — so if you recover more than 50 percent of your own energy costs from the spent grain that’s a big saving,” Bengel says. And what better way to recover costs than to take on yet another enduring economic riddle: how to deal with the rising cost of oil. (Yes, oil prices are way down from last year, but don’t bet on that lasting too much longer.) Bengel has experience in this department, having done similar work with rice and cane waste in China and Thailand. In this instance, he’s also drawing on Anheuser-Busch’s established practice of turning beer waste into energy for use in its own breweries around the world. With the technology figured out, all Bengel needs now are waste management firms willing carry the start-up costs of installing and operating the equipment, and, of course, breweries willing to buy energy recycled from their own operations.

Photo by brokersaunders used under a Creative Commons license.