September 25, 2007 | 9 Comments
For a couple of years we’ve been slaves to the ethanol run up into the fuel market. Federal programs geared to support it, protect it and promote it have hidden a far better choice. Butanol is also an alcohol as is ethanol, but it’s a different molecule with very different properties. The quick explanation is the molecule of ethanol is 2 carbon atoms with hydrogen and butanol is 4 carbon atoms with hydrogen. That doubling up the carbon increases the density of the fuel getting much closer to gasoline and solves a host of other problems.
While ethanol is getting clobbered in the press and blog spheres of late with some but not fully valid complaints, butanol has been quietly getting more traction.
For decades the agricultural community and the huge agri business companies have been pushing ethanol, likely because the technology has been around for thousands of years. But the “ethanol peak” is probably right about now. The quick rundown of the problems: In the US ethanol is mostly made from corn which is also a food raw material and animal feed for human food protein. The corn needs the costly and natural gas rich input of anhydrous ammonia and the manufacturing needs even more natural gas or worse, coal fuel to heat the alcohol mash to distill out the ethanol. The end product is about 60 to 70% of the energy density of gasoline and is corrosive to commonly used metals in auto fuel systems and dissolves some plastic materials.
Butanol has been researched from the start using the easily acquired plant starches that can be made into sugar. The advantage is that the current butanol people recognized early on that cellulose would be a necessity for market growth. It appears that researchers are using enzymes rather than yeast for the bioconversion, which may simplify the jump over to cellulose feed stocks. Most of the proposed feedstock plants are less demanding for synthetic fertilizers and petroleum based pesticides. The available information about the proposed processes leads one to think that the distillation may well not need to be done at all. The end product is 90 to 95% of the energy density of gasoline, which means that any fuel injected engine and most carbureted engines would use butanol alone or in a mix with gasoline. Butanol isn’t corrosive or a solvent of the common plastics in fuel systems. Best of all, butanol doesn’t mix with water and can be pipelined in existing systems.
Butanol on the other hand is just now becoming a plant-based feedstock for fuel use. Right now British petroleum and DuPont (Dupont owns the huge seed company Pioneer Hybrids, a major corn seed innovator) are refurbishing an ethanol facility in Great Britain to make butanol. See: http://www2.dupont.com/Biofuels/en_US/ A gentleman in Ohio has licensed of some University of Ohio patents and is working on funding a pilot production facility. See: http://www.butanol.com/index.html There is a project under way in Alabama with another technology for using cellulosic feedstock. See: http://www.baer-enterprises.com/biofuels.html And there are news reports that Chevron is looking into biobutanol with Georgia Tech and Weyerhaeuser using forestry products for feedstock. There are some serious people looking into butanol.
Opposite that is the information that California has allocated funds for emission research using butanol. There doesn’t seem to be any EPA sourced reports on tailpipe emissions but the agency has awarded at least one research grant for butanol.
Here are some fascinating links to expand your knowledge of butanol.
Honda and Research Institute of Innovative Technology are reported to be using bacteria to produce butanol: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2007/08/rite-develops-c.html
Gevo, a California Institute of Technology spinoff, the infamous Khosla Ventures and now Virgin Fuels are moving from ethanol to butanol research: http://biopact.com/2007/07/gevo-receives-funding-from-virgin-fuels.html
Global Energy and Ocean Technology are reported to have been working on an idea of electrochemical production of butanol using CO2, water, and electricity yielding butanol, water and oxygen. Now looking for more funding: http://www.oceanethanol.com/site/Ocean%20Ethanol/Ocean%20Ethanol.html
Energy Quest is looking into gasification to make butanol: http://www.syngasinternational.com/news1.html
The Brits are developing the next generation of “bugs” for the next generation of butanol production: http://biopact.com/2007/01/green-biologics-awarded-855000-to_22.html
The leading blog is: http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2006/05/bio-butanol.html
Here is a list of companies and research institutions working in the field: http://www.cpbr.org/membership.html
So it was a busy summer for butanol. With the Chicago Board of Trade offering up ethanol futures contracts one would have thought that ethanol is a firmly entrenched alternative fuel. Yet as we discussed, it is most likely a dead end to be replaced by a far better choice. Keep in mind that the farmer will still be growing crops for fuel, although likely not corn, and will make a lot more money per acre because there is nearly a third again as many BTUs in butanol vs. ethanol. Ethanol plants are well positioned by location and facilities in place to migrate to butanol if they can find the professional expertise and make the engineering transition. We consumers can look for perhaps as much as 30 or 35% of the crude imported for making gasoline to be displaced by butanol with little or no noticeable negative economic impact.
Not a lot of major press attention – but things are moving along nicely.