Is butanol the future of renewable fuel?(Read article summary)
Like ethanol, butanol can be produced from corn or sugar cane, but it has a far higher energy density and is easier for refiners to mix with gasoline.
Janet S. Carter/The Free Press/AP/File
Butanol is a renewable biofuel that is set to debut at US pumps next year, and hopes to challenge ethanol’s dominance of the $26 billion market.
Just as with ethanol it can be produced from corn or sugar cane, however it has a far higher energy density and is easier for refiners to mix with gasoline.
Gevo Inc, financed by Total SA and Richard Branson (through Virgin Green Fund), is currently running a plant in Luverne, Minnesota, and Butamex Advanced Biofuel LLC, a company funded by DuPont CO. and BP Plc, and is working on the retrofit of an old ethanol plant nearby, to convert it for the commercial production of butanol. (Related article: US Refiner Valero Outperforms)
Branson explained that butanol “is the future of renewable fuels. It’s also hugely versatile so can be created to produce gasoline fuel blends, rubbers, solvents, plastics and jet fuels, which give us scope to enter into a range of markets.”
Bloomberg reports that butanol has been around for decades as a by-product of oil refining, but that the ability to make it from crops has made it useful as a form of renewable energy. Butamex explains that by using corn, sugar cane, or cellulosic biomass, a biobutanol fuel can be distilled.
Paul Beckwith, the CEO of Butamex, said that they’ve “advanced steadily, and we now are at the phase where we are commercializing the technology. We are spending significant sums of money. The technology is being implemented as we speak.”
Shiela Williams, a spokeswoman for BP, said that “biobutanol is a drop-in fuel molecule that represents the next significant change required to meet the growth in demand for lower carbon, renewable fuels for transportation.” However, “commercializing an all-new energy technology properly takes time, despite being one of the most advanced biofuels.” (Related article: Producers Panic as Ethanol Mandate Loses Support)
Butamex has already gathered several ethanol producers (such as Big River Resources LLC and Siouxland Ethanol LLC) with a combined production capacity of nearly 900 million gallons, who are willing to switch their facilities to produce butanol once the technology is viable.
Butanol also trumps ethanol for the fact that it is much less corrosive, and can also be blended with gasoline to a higher concentration. US law limits the ethanol content of gasoline to 15% for any cars built since 2001, and many older cars have to use weaker concentrations. Due to Butanol’s higher energy density it can be blended with gasoline at 16%.