Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Biobutanol

Expand your vocabulary with “biobutanol.” It is a must-know word for those of us who are still in love with the internal combustion engine. Butanol makes a particularly good fuel, because chemically it looks more like gasoline than alcohol. It has been in use for years as an industrial solvent. Up to this point, butanol has been produced petrochemically, but that is changing.

Biobutanol can be made by fermenting biomass, just like ethanol. The same feedstock can be used - sugar cane, corn, beets, corn stalks, etc. Yet there are differences in the fermentation process that makes butanol production easier - as long as the right enzyme is used. The bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum is a known and successful catalyst.

Beyond product a significant difference - and it is a key factor economically - is that, unlike ethanol, butanol blends up nicely with gas or diesel. This means biobutanol can be transported through gasoline pipelines. Every shareholder of an ethanol stock knows the hurdles producers face in forging distribution arrangements.

The mileage characteristics of biobutanol are not yet known. However, butanol is considered to have nearly as much energy as gasoline. The energy density of butanol is about 29.2 MJ per liter compared to 32 MJ per liter for gasoline. This means the fuel consumption penalty compared to gasoline may be only about 10%. This compares quite favorably to ethanol, which has a 40% penalty since the energy density of ethanol is only about 20 MJ per liter.

BP (BP: NYSE) and DuPont have already teamed up to produce biobutanol in a demonstration plant in the U.K. It is quite possible they will not be the only ones looking at the other “alcohol” fuel. If the distribution and mileage issues that plague ethanol cannot be resolved, ethanol producers may be looking for alternatives. Ethanol plants can easily be converted to biobutanol production.

1 comment:

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