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Alcohol Distillation’s Impact on the Environment

From its cultivation on farms to your glass, booze has an enormous carbon footprint. Growing grains, grapes, potatoes, cane sugar, botanicals and agave used in your sixteen dollar martini requires water, energy and fertilizer use; and distillation involves using additional energy when boiling it down to ethanol for fermentation.

Alcohol distillation’s environmental impacts are often underestimated, even among its producers themselves. Aside from using considerable amounts of fuel, alcohol production also generates large volumes of wastewater known as “stillage”, with high chemical oxygen demand (COD) and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). These organic pollutants have the potential to harm aquatic systems as well as soils if left in place for too long, leading to damage that requires cleaning up later on.

Most alcohol distilleries partner with sugar mills to use molasses from cane sugar manufacturing as their starting material and most economical source for producing ethanol, though other biomass materials may also be utilized as feedstock for alcohol production.

Distillation systems must produce alcohol of greater concentration than that in its source liquid mixture for effective distillation to occur, and this can be accomplished by increasing the reflux ratio of the column distillation system; however, this will increase energy requirements significantly.

Distillers have begun exploring alternative approaches to producing 100 percent alcohol, such as vacuum-based processes and adsorption. Adsorption uses a final column packed with organic absorbents such as finely ground cornmeal to absorb any remaining water in ethanol/water vapor mixtures at 5-10 cents per pound cost and efficiently. Although energy requirements for this process are much reduced, this approach still faces issues of azeotrope formation as with traditional high pressure methods.