A new whey to make energy?

Although the discovery is a winner, it’s not automatically a slam dunk for business; to replace affordable petroleum or natural gas, the new bio-fuel needs to be cost competitive.

Key Points

  • Greek yogurt could help make energy.
  • A byproduct in the production process can be converted into biofuel.
  • Researchers are now determining if it’s commercially viable. 

Greek yogurt is almost magical.

It’s delicious.

It’s healthy.

My kids will even eat it.

And now, some of its byproduct can be used to make biofuel.

The Greek variety of yogurt is so creamy because much of the liquid is strained out of the milk protein. This leftover yogurt whey was once considered garbage.

But a team of researchers from Cornell University and the University of Tübingen in Germany figured out a way to turn the discarded byproduct into a biofuel.

Turns out, the lactic acid in the unwanted whey leftovers can be converted into bio-oil.

The researchers are exploring if this process makes commercial sense. If so, they hope to have it in use by 2020 in vehicles and even planes.

Although the discovery is a winner, it’s not automatically a slam dunk for business; to replace affordable petroleum or natural gas, the new bio-fuel needs to be cost competitive.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, there is a significant supply of yogurt whey available to convert. For every cup of Greek yogurt in your fridge, there were two to three times that amount of whey leftovers created to get it there.

America produces more than 770,000 metric tons of yogurt a year. Multiply that by two or three, and you have some waste to work with.

Even so, it’s not easy to establish a new fuel. In the wake of corn ethanol’s challenges like displacing crops, the race is on to find another biofuel source. Here’s a summary from Smithsonian of some of the other research in the works:

“Researchers have been turning to other potential biofuel sources. Some are looking at plants such as hemp and switchgrass that are less resource-intensive than corn or soybeans. Sugar beets, termed ‘energy beets,’ by their supporters, is another crop with fuel potential and has the added benefit of remediating phosphorous in the soil, helping to keep nearby watersheds healthy. This past summer, ExxonMobil announced the creation of a strain of genetically modified algae they say produces twice as much oil as regular algae. One company is beginning to process household garbage like eggshells and coffee grounds into jet fuel. In late 2016, Alaska Airlines powered a cross-country flight with a new biofuel produced by wood scraps. Like the yogurt whey, the wood has the benefit of being a waste product that would otherwise present a disposal challenge; many of the most promising potential biofuel materials are waste products or ‘co-products’ of other processes.” 

Whether you’re betting on beets, algae or whey, we’ll all win with new, affordable and reliable resource options.


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned a degree in political science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the governor’s office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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