Meet Dr Les Howarth (right), an experienced chemist with a love for beer brewing and Scotland.
How did you begin working at Celtic Renewables?
LH: At the end of 2019, I was working for a food company in the United States, near Chicago, when my wife and I decided to return to the UK. So, I left my job, we sold our house and came back to the UK in February 2020. I have family in Yorkshire and my sister conveniently owned an Airbnb, where we could stay temporarily while I was looking for another job. Then COVID happened so we ended up staying longer than expected! During that time, I was job hunting but it was a roller coaster with restrictions coming and going. I was offered a few jobs, but none of them felt right for me. Eventually, I saw this job advertised with Celtic Renewables, applied for it and was asked for a video interview. I was fortunately offered the job, it ticked all the boxes for me and, since I had previously lived in Scotland for 11 years, working in Livingston and Glasgow, and enjoyed my time here, I was very happy to return to Scotland!
What made you want to work at Celtic Renewables?
LH: I had my interview with our managing director John Stevenson and then manufacturing director Denise. I have never laughed as much in a job interview before as I did with those two. We were learning about each other but the interview was very friendly, relaxed and enjoyable. It really struck me that these two characters would be fun to work with. It was important to me to work somewhere where I would be happy after my experiences in the USA. I think it was worth holding out for an interesting position that would also be enjoyable.
You’re an Applied Chemist at Celtic Renewables. What does this position entail?
LH: My main role is knowledge transfer between the research team at Napier University and the production, engineering and commercial teams. As we gear up production and I learn more about the process I will be involved in process troubleshooting and continuous improvement. In addition, until very recently, I was the only chemist at Celtic Renewables, with the other technical people being mainly microbiologists or chemical engineers. This has meant that any chemistry-related questions have come to me and I’ve been heavily involved with the health and safety aspects of using and producing hazardous substances. One of the advantages of being in a smaller company is that it is easy to get involved in any area where you think you can help and I jump in whenever I think I can contribute based on my expertise and experience. My focus primarily will be towards the end of the process, looking at the products and their quality control. I have also been investigating potential uses for our products. We are producing acetone, butanol and ethanol, as well as other by-products, but these can be reacted with other chemicals and produce a wider range of renewable products. So the position involves a range of activities and no two days are the same.
What is your favourite part about working at Celtic Renewables?
LH: There are two things that come to my mind.
Whenever anybody in the company has got a question that is chemistry-related, they will come to me. This is satisfying because I feel that, by answering these questions, I am helping to move the company forward in a safe manner. The other thing that I enjoy is being back in Scotland. I had almost forgotten the great sense of humour of the Scots so I love the daily banter.
What are you looking forward to seeing in the future of the industry?
LH: It will be great to see Martin Tangney’s vision come true, because I think it is a game-changing technology and, in this vision, Celtic Renewables is at the vanguard of a shift to producing chemicals in a renewable way. The ABE process is a 100-year-old process and it has a long history of working effectively so it can work again. With the benefits of using cheaper raw materials and by-products of the whisky industry, advances in science, process control, microbiology, genetics and other developments the ABE process will be back better than ever! In a world of finite resources, we need to get into the habit of recycling everything in one way or another.
What is one thing you do in your day-to-day life to be more sustainable?
LH: I travel to and from work by public transport. I can drive, but I’m finding that public transport works pretty well for me. I have a choice of routes using train and/or bus. It takes a bit longer than driving but the walking involved is good exercise and I enjoy having some time to myself. There can be occasional issues due to bad weather and I once had to evacuate a bus because it caught fire but you just have to accept that things might go wrong occasionally.
You have been brewing your own beer for some time, how does this connect to your work as a chemist?
LH: The brewing actually helps me with my work at Celtic Renewables because it is also a biological process that involves raw materials, sugars, proteins, enzymes and micro-organisms. From this, I am aware of the importance of nutrients, pH, temperature etc. So, although I am not a trained microbiologist I have an appreciation of what is important during the inoculation and fermentation processes. I’m hoping that it will also work the other way and all of these microbiologists might be able to help me brew even better beer! I’ve certainly got plenty of volunteers to do some taste testing for me!
You have also written a book about beer brewing, what led you to do this and what was the process like for you?
LH: I have a number of beer recipe books and have brewed many of these recipes but I decided I wanted to try recreating beers that I had tasted but didn’t have their recipes. So I started trying to research ingredient information for beers which would be a good starting point for developing recipes. Over the years I ended up finding information for thousands of beers! Initially, I collected these in a database, just for my own use, but then I realised that self-publishing was a way of distributing this information to the wider brewing community. The publishing process is very simple and allows you 100% control of content, format, price etc. I enjoyed this whole process of creating a book and putting it out there and I even get a little bit of royalties back. It’s not much, but enough for a few pints of beer a month!
Again, I think that is relevant to Celtic Renewables because I enjoy the writing process so have no problems writing reports or other documentation. I always say, if you do some work and you don’t write it up, you might as well not have done it, because nobody will know about it unless you capture it.