Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC, the joint venture research effort of British Petroleum and DuPont has set up an “Early Adopters Group” (EAG).  Four more ethanol producers have joined the EAG bringing the total number of ethanol plants that have indicated interest in the company’s biobutanol technology to seven.

Butamax CEO Paul Beckwith said in a prepared statement, “We continue to see strong interest from high-quality ethanol producers who are excited by the opportunity to become producers of biobutanol as a next-generation biofuel. With the depth of industry expertise brought by the EAG members, we are well-positioned for the rapid scale-up of biobutanol production for the transportation sector.”

Butamax is moving pretty fast.  Just two months ago the firm announced in its June 18 press release establishing the EAG consortium as companies “interested in the potential biobutanol offers for long-term, sustainable biofuel production.”

The technology may have some particular advantages to Fagen/ICM-designed facilities.  The seven plants that have announced joining are all facilities constructed by Fagen Inc., including Platinum Ethanol, a Fagen-owned facility.

Ron Fagen, chairman of Fagen Inc. said, “Biobutanol is an exciting next step in the evolution of biofuels and presents a significant opportunity for companies such as ours to produce and market a higher-value product and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The starting plants are:

  • Platinum Ethanol LLC, a 110 MMgy ethanol plant located in Arthur, Iowa.
  • Little Sioux Corn Processors LP, a 100 MMgy plant located in Marcus, Iowa
  • Granite Falls Energy LLC, a 60 MMgy plant in Granite Falls, Minn.
  • Siouxland Ethanol LLC, a 50 MMgy plant in Jackson, Neb.
  • Highwater Ethanol LLC, a nearly 60 MMgy plant in Lamberton, Minn.
  • Lincolnway Energy LLC, a 55 MMgy plant in Nevada, Iowa
  • Corn LP, a 60 MMgy plant in Goldfield, Iowa

The retrofit schedules haven’t been announced as of yet. The retrofit publicly discussed is Highwater Ethanol, whose CEO Brian Kletscher said in his 2011 annual report, is in an ongoing discussion with Butamax about the possibility of converting to biobutanol production.  Highwater was the first to join the EAG in December 2011.

Kletscher said the company is currently in the process of reviewing the Butamax process and its economic viability. “We expect the definitive agreement review will take at least 9 months,” he said.

For the butanol enthusiasts the news and progress is quite satisfying.  Butanol is a four-carbon molecule instead of the two carbon atoms in an ethanol molecule.  Butanol is also nearly the same as gasoline in energy content and doesn’t take up water as ethanol does.

But it’s not all locked up.

Colorado-based Gevo Inc., and Butamax are engaged in a legal battle over intellectual property rights for butanol technology.

The Butamax announcement that it was adding four plants to its early adopters list came less than a week after a judge ruled in U.S. Federal District Court in the District of Delaware that Gevo is only allowed to sell bio-based isobutanol produced at its Luverne, Minn., facility, the former Agri-Energy LLC ethanol plant, to Sasol for chemical applications and the U.S. Air Force for jet fuel testing applications.

Gevo is nearly finished retrofitting the Luverne facility and plans to produce butanol there quite soon. The company also has a joint venture to retrofit Redfield Energy LLC, a 50 MMgy ethanol plant in Redfield, S.D. Gevo points out that although Butamax had requested that the court shut down Gevo’s operations until the patent lawsuit is settled, the court elected instead to “maintain the status quo.”

That’s two competing firms with technologies similar enough to provoke a lawyer war.  As noted, the judge is keeping Gevo at a stop while Butamax presses on.  That part of the race to market is not a race any more.

Yet butanol is going to come to market. British Petroleum, with the familiar BP gasoline stations, is in all the way indicating that some folks will get a crack at using the butanol for transport fuel.

As a gasoline substitute butanol is a drop in for gasoline.  Plus it adds oxygen to the fuel and would add octane to the rating improving quality for more demanding, higher compression engines.

Another advantage is as butanol production displaces ethanol production the pressure for higher ethanol percentages in the national fuel mix will be reduced.  Obviously there will be a delay as the regulators stick their noses into the technology, but coming up with credible objections is going to be essentially impossible.  That won’t stop the allegations, and as bureaucrats are wont to do, every one will be duly heard while factually butanol is a wonderful biofuel.

The main step will be getting the regulations set out for the mixing of butanol with which gasoline components that can make a fuel to satisfy the EPA requirements for emissions.

Like most all of the new energy endeavors, butanol is more ready to start commercial production than started.  Gevo has the sense to sign up chemical feedstock and military customers to roll out, while Butamax is seeking a much larger mass-market introduction.  Getting the judicial system involved is Butamax’s own fault, getting past the regulations for mixing fuels is another government intervention.  At least neither firm is at the trough looking for handouts.

Folks in the Middle West are looking good for fuel supplies.  Old-field Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas oil, new Bakken oil, Canadian oil sands, ethanol, and now butanol is coming, too.

Next up for research – cellulosic butanol.


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