In the early half of his career, Jim Batdorf spent his time at a technology company, converting and recycling all kinds of solid, chemical, and hazardous waste into hydrogen. Now, Batdorf is the chief distiller at Solar Spirits, a distillery in Richland, Washington.

The professional shift from chemical engineer to whiskey and vodka maker may seem unconventional – that is, unless your distillery is looking for sustainable, solar-powered approach to producing alcohol.

Founded in 2015, Solar Spirits incorporates a mash and distilling process that is powered by thermal solar tubes.

Energy from the Sun is used to heat water to the 100 °F - 200 °F temperature range required for the hot water steeping process – a method of hydrating the barley, activating the malt enzymes, and converting the grain starches into sugars that can be fermented, or turned into alcohol.

Batdorf tells Tech Briefs about his unique career path and the importance of emphasizing sun-powered sustainability in a traditional process like distilling spirits.

Tech Briefs: What was your path to running a distillery?

Jim Batdorf: In 2013, there was a group of entrepreneurs that got together on a weekend to learn about business planning, and they did some mock businesses. One of those was a distillery that used solar energy, and this group of people that didn't know each other, after the weekend, decided it was a good idea. I came on about three and a half years ago. They had permits, some equipment, a facility, a tasting room, but they didn't have product.

Tech Briefs: What was your engineering background before you arrived?

Jim Batdorf: My background is chemical engineering. For the past 16 years I worked at InEnTec Inc., a technology company in Richland, WA. InEnTec developed a new technology for processing solid, liquid, and gaseous waste materials and converting the waste materials – hazardous waste, chemical waste, municipal waste, medical waste – into hydrogen. I worked in the technology development, and then in the process scaling, from 30 pounds an hour to 150 tons a day.

In 2015, I was working part-time and kind of taking a little bit of a breather and trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, and met these gentlemen that had started this distillery. I said, "Well, I know about distillation, and I like whiskey. It seems like I can become a distiller."

Tech Briefs: Can you describe the solar technology behind Solar Spirits?

Jim Batdorf: We have an array of 12 solar thermal panels, so they’re not solar electric. Each 4 x 5-foot panel contains a series of tubes that are about two inches in diameter and four feet long. Each one of those is a vacuum bottle, if you will; there are two glass cylinders nested inside of each other with a vacuum in between, like a thermos insulation. Because of that vacuum, you get the high level of insulation.

Jim Batdorf with a whiskey still from Solar Spirits. (Image Credit: Batdorf)

Tech Briefs: So, how does the technology handle sunlight?

Jim Batdorf: The Sun's energy goes through those glass tubes. The inner one has an anti-reflection coating, so the UV heat energy goes in and heats a copper tube in the very center of that set of cylinders. That collects the heat, and since it gets warm, the reflective coating keeps that energy in; the vacuum space keeps the thermal energy from leaking out.

You end up with a really efficient system. As the Sun moves through the day, you don't have to rotate or move these panels.

The heat then is collected in the center tube, which is a heat pipe, and it conducts the heat up to a header at the top of the panel. There's no liquid connection between the heat pipe and the water or fluid flowing through that header. It's just a physical connection of copper to copper.

Tech Briefs: Was the technology setup always like this?

Jim Batdorf: We need hot water to do the mash when we make beer. We also often use some hot water for cleaning of the stills and all of the fermentation equipment; we go through quite a bit of hot water.

Initially for our system, it was set up with hot water circulating, cold water coming in and hot water coming out, and we had a couple 300-gallon hot water tanks that we used to heat water when we made beer.

Since then, we've modified the system and I've converted it over to a hot oil – a thermal oil that flows through that header and it's heated by the sun's energy. Then, we connected that into the system that heats our stills. So, we have a recirculating system of hot oil that goes through an electric heater to trim the temperature and goes through the stills connected in the loop. It also flows through a heat exchanger that we use to heat water.

Tech Briefs: How many different types of alcohol are you making?

Jim Batdorf: We make vodka, two gins, cranberry brandy, grappa brandy, cherry brandy, whiskey, and some flavored vodkas, coffee-flavored vodka and a cosmopolitan pre-made cocktail in a bottle. All of these are made following the same process. Everything starts as wine, and then we go through a large still and do a stripping run. This is fairly common in craft distillers: You take the wine at 14% alcohol, run it through the first still in a batch, and get the concentration up to 40% alcohol.

Tech Briefs: Would a typical distiller be surprised by your solar-powered setup?

Jim Batdorf: If you walked in you wouldn't really notice any difference at all. You see some pipes running through, but they're fairly small. But the one thing running on hot oil does that was sort of unexpected is that it provides for a really precise control of the still.

Most people heat their stills with steam. Steam has a lot of safety issues, which means that people operate at fairly low-pressure steam, for safety. That basically means you're on or off, and you're always going to be operating at that one temperature, which is about 250 °F. With the recirculating hot oil, we can operate at 120 °F, 140 °F, 180 °F, 300 °F, or any point in between, and it gives us a great deal of control and allows more precise control of the stills.

Tech Briefs: How important is the idea of sustainability to your production?

Jim Batdorf: It's very important to our company. Solar Spirits started with this idea of incorporating solar, but as we've evolved, we are looking more and more at how we can take our company and make a sustainable business.

This year, we are buying renewable energy credits, so we've gone 100% renewable for our energy supply. Anything that we use – energy for lighting or heating and air conditioning in the tasting room, in the distillery – all of that now is powered by renewable, over and above what we can provide with our solar panels. But we're also going through every aspect of our business operations, trying to reduce plastic use, for example, and trying to think about the environment and sustainability as we go.

Tech Briefs: What has the response been to your setup, especially from scientists?

Jim Batdorf: What we're doing I think is interesting and unique because it involves solar thermal not for hot water but for the next temperature range up. Today’s solar thermal systems are mostly used to make hot water in the 120 °F- 140 °F range. That's what's used in households. We've moved up now to that next range of about 250 degrees, which is useful commercially, actually. There's a lot of commercial industries that need energy in that temperature zone, and they tend to use steam. I think this solar thermal could be a really interesting option for commercial entities in that temperature range.

Tech Briefs: Is solar thermal the kind of idea that’s feasible for a larger-scale operation?

Jim Batdorf: We could definitely do a larger scale, but the issue with solar thermal is similar to solar electric in that the sun is only out for a certain number of hours of every day and a certain number of days a year. Here in Richland, we get 300 days a year of sunshine, so it's a good option for us. But still, when it's cloudy, we'd like to run beyond the middle of the day into the evening at nighttime. We don't currently have any technology for storing this thermal energy.

Tech Briefs: It's a pretty unique career path, wouldn't you say, to go from chemical engineering to spirits?

Jim Batdorf: It is. It's really quite a change and really enjoyable. I think the fun thing for me as an engineer is that I get to do everything now. I get work on the business side, the sales, marketing, the business planning, as well as the distilling and product development. It's really enjoyable to be in all angles of a business.

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