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Our Future Will Be Powered by Wine

Avinash Karpe, a 26-year-old chemist at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, is developing a process for turning wine waste into biofuel. If all goes according to plan, we may one day be powering our cars with the remnants of a '96 Nebbiolo.

Meet 26-year-old Avinash Karpe, a chemist who, along with researchers at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology, is developing a technique to turn winery waste products into biofuel. If all goes according to his plan, we may one day be powering our homes and cars with the remnants of a '96 Nebbiolo. I'll drink to that.

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Avinash Karpe and a 3.5-litre bioreactor—his baby. Photos by David Allegretti.

"The process is quite simple, really," says Karpe as we chat in the office of his PhD research supervisor, Professor Enzo Palombo. The wine industry produces vast amounts of waste material—material that the EU has recently classified as industrial waste—that usually becomes landfill. "After the grapes are pressed, and all the juice is extracted, what we are left with is all this plant material which is normally just thrown away. So, we reasoned, 'Is it possible to turn that material into something more valuable?'" The idea behind Karpe's project is to see whether he could turn it into a biofuel for everything from transport to heating.

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With the help of a fungi cocktail (consisting of Trichoderma harzianum, Aspergillus niger, Penicillium chrysogenum, and Penicillium citrinum), Karpe breaks winery waste material down into basic carbohydrates that can be fermented, producing biofuels such as ethanol. If all this works, not only will Karpe's team reduce industrial waste, but also provide a cleaner alternative to traditional fuel sources. And did I mention it could also play a role in solving world hunger?

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Karpe analyses the degraded products with a gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GCMS) machine.

"The US uses corn or corn starch and turns that sugar into ethanol. In Brazil, it's sugar cane," Professor Palombo notes. "What we're saying is let's not use things which are potentially food. Why are we turning corn into ethanol? Corn is a food—it's just wasteful. And the large push now is to turn non-food biomass into fuel. So we're sort of killing two birds with one stone. We are taking a non-food material which is winery waste, and an industrial pollutant, and turning it into something useful."

As for its medicinal properties, winery waste could potentially be transformed into compounds such as antioxidants, cancer drugs, or antibiotics, Karpe explains. After all, many of our medicines today are derived from plants. A good example is quinine, a plant-derived compound, which is used to treat malaria.

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Components of Karpe's lab.

So how did this idea come about? "Well, petrol is getting more expensive," says Karpe. "As a student, I can't afford the petrol. So probably one day I can make my own petrol. Something like Back to the Future." The research hasn't gotten quite that advanced yet, but according to Karpe, "it's just a matter of time until it goes commercial."

"Last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published a report saying that Australia was producing about 1.7-1.8 million tonnes of wine grapes every year. And roughly 40 to50 per cent of that amount gets disposed of as solid waste. So we are looking at that 40 to 50 percent which essentially goes in the landfill, polluting the environment. We are hoping to change that," says Karpe.

Don't be pouring that bottle of red down your fuel tank anytime soon, though—it's still early days in development. But if Karpe continues on his promising road, one day we may very well be driving grape-powered cars.