CORN ETHANOL ALTERNATIVE GEARS UP FOR PRODUCTION
The long term search for a gasoline alternative that meets the requirements for renewable fuel with 50% or greater reduction in total greenhouse emissions (vs. gasoline) from its production and use is now focused on biobutanol. Actively being readied for production by a BP/DuPont team, biobutanol not only fills the technical requirements for a gasoline replacement but also appears to have good economics without need for government subsidies (reported to be $6 billion/year currently for U.S. ethanol).
In effect, long smoldering discontent with corn ethanol’s use of valuable food crop, related land, water and fertilize, is close to a solution and certain to have wide support. Underlying this are growing reports that economic production systems for biobutanol, are well advanced.
Aside from elimination of its need for subsidy, biobutanol has several technical advantages over ethanol. One is higher energy content which provides close to the same mpg vehicle performance as gasoline. Another is that biobutanol can be mixed with
gasoline where normally shipped by pipeline. It does not have to be transported separately by truck or rail car for blending with gasoline at distribution terminals as required for corn ethanol (to avoid ethanol pick up of water in pipelines)
Another advantage is its lower vapor pressure. This permits biobutanol to be blended with gasoline that has higher vapor pressure than required for blending with ethanol. This in turn, permits higher gasoline yield per barrel in refining.
As for percentage use in gasoline of biobutanol vs ethanol, the BP/DuPond team reported three years ago that its vehicle testing indicated that 16% butanol in gasoline meets EPA permit requirements. Higher than 16% biobutanol blending, however is said to be entirely possible without changes to vehicle systems or fueling station tanks and pumps. This solves fuel retailer’s tank and pump problems and eliminates motorist confusion with pump labeling as proposed, for instance, for E15 said to be suitable only for vehicles in a certain age group.
Among the heavy hitters developing biobutanol is the BP/DuPont joint venture, Butamax. Others are Gevo and Cobalt in addition to which a new factor, Phytonix Corp. has recently joined the competition with a unique genetically modified (GM) bacteria which continuously secretes biobutanol in photobioreactors fed with ambient or industrial source CO2 and salt or fresh water. Phytonix spokesman, Bruce Dannenberg, points out that the firm’s GM bacteria has the unique property, if exposed to the atmosphere, to automatically degrade so as to render the GM bacteria’s properties harmless outside its fuel producing function. Dannenberg refers to this as “Biosafety guarded GM organism”
As an indication of biobutanol economics, Phytonix reports that biobutanol made via its process costs under $1/gal, including the cost of capital. It is interesting that this is about the same basic cost claimed for Algenol’s ethanol made from algae that continuously secrets ethanol vapors. In other words, two secretion systems for different alcohols in about the same cost range. These cost figures are believed to be just that; cost, and do not include administration, marketing and profit. For reference, the Wall Street Journal reports $2.50/gal for denatured ethanol before subsidies. Phytonix claims biobutanol yield will be about 20,000 gal/acre/yr.
Regarding cost, it should be noted that biobutanol developers Butamax, Gevo and Cobalt are targeting use of cellulosic raw material at least for initial production. Related costs are not expected, however, to be at the low levels claimed for the Phytonix bacteria system. Cobalt has reported its intention to sell into the higher priced chemicals market initially and later for fuels. Much of the early production is expected to be at retro-fitted ethanol plants.
Another biobutanol advance was recently announced by Biology Professor James Liao at DOE’s Bio Energy Science Center, UCLA. Liao claims that biobutanol can be produced directly via a system developed by his group from cellulose by combining biomass utilization with fermentation of sugars in a single step with clostridium. Cost comparison of the Liao system with bacteria secretion could not learned.
An industry source says that Butamax (BP/DuPont) is expected to have first production under way by the beginning of 2012. Presumably EPA’s earlier permit for 16% biobutanol in gasoline remains valid but a new permit for use above the 16% level would be needed. Again, the key permitting requirement is for evidence that during production and use, greenhouse gas emissions are less than 50% compared with gasoline. .
Looking ahead, it appears to be entirely possible that biobutanol could become a major component of spark ignition engine fuel at less cost than today’s gasoline. Perhaps new, low cost methods for obtaining diesel fuel from algae and other bio sources will be the other part of a 1-2 punch for replacement of imported petroleum motor fuel.
An interesting question will be how gasoline/biobutanol blends are marketed? Will a new name be created with consumer appeal?