Butanol Coming to US at a Gas Station Near You

Butanol may be sold at American gas pumps as early as next year, challenging the dominant position ethanol now holds in the $26 billion renewable fuels market. So reports Bloomberg.

Billionaire Richard Branson has been promoting Butanol as a gas substitute. Like ethanol, the colorless alcohol can be brewed from corn, though it packs more energy when mixed into gasoline. But Butanol has some advantages. Butanol holds 84% of the energy content of gasoline while ethanol holds just 66%. That will enable drivers to go farther on a tank of gas with Butanol than they would on a tank with ethanol.

It’s also less expensive to blend Butanol into gas because the two have similar vapor pressure — the pressure at which a liquid turns into a gas. Because the vapor pressures of gas and ethanol are so different, when refiners blend the two, they must first strip the ethanol out of the gasoline in order to stabilize their mixture. That won’t be the case with butane, reports Bloomberg.

Two companies say they’ve lined up clients for large-scale deliveries of Butanol. DuPont Co. and BP plc have funded a company called Butamax Advanced Biofuel LLC, which is retrofitting an ethanol plant in Minnesota to begin making butanol in larger volume. And French oil producer Total SA and Branson, through his Virgin Green Fund, have financed a company called Gevo Inc. (GEVO), which runs a Butanol distillery 60 miles away.

Branson calls Butanol 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,” he told Bloomberg.

Branson’s interest in Butanol is largely because he owns airline Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., which could benefit from a renewable fuel. He is the second-largest investor in Gevo, owning a 5% stake, which has tested biobutanol with the U.S. Department of Defense and Coast Guard and in racing car fuels. Virgin Atlantic has previously stated their goal of using renewable fuels in commercial flights starting in 2014.

Butanol is going to give ethanol a run for its money. Producers need only retrofit their plants, according to the fuel’s supporters. The producers’ current distribution networks and vehicle engines will work just as well with butanol as they do with ethanol, supporters say.

The Butanol push comes as oil giants BP and Royal Dutch Shell Plc are scaling back their work on corn- and sugar cane- based biofuels, on account of the cost and difficulty in making them work on a commercial scale.

Butanol has potential, but there have been technological problems in the fermentation process, says Clare Wenner, a transport analyst at the Renewable Energy Association, based in London.

“It’s taking a lot longer than anybody thought years ago,” Wenner told Bloomberg.

Butanol has been around for decades as a byproduct of oil refining. But making it from crops has taken it to a new level in the renewable energy search. It’s now produced largely with corn but it can work with other substances such as sugar cane and cellulosic biomass, resulting in a fuel called biobutanol, according to Butamax.

To read the full Bloomberg story, click here

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