BioButanolPower?

1985Gripen’s going to be all over this one…

Inspired by this news article, i’ve been reading up a bit today on Butanol. Like ethanol, butanol can be made from renewable sources, but it has a few advantages over ethanol.

1) It doesn’t have the same corrosive effects on the fuel system, so butanol backers claim that it can be used in cars without any modifications being necessary (though it’s recommended to increase the fuel flow to match the combustion characteristics of gasoline).

2) Unlike ethanol, which has to be transported in trucks or on barges, butanol can be transported through existing pipelines, making distribution a bucketload easier.

3) It has a higher BTU rating than ethanol, which means you don’t suffer the same deterioration in fuel economy – one of the main criticisms of ethanol.

4) It burns a bit cleaner than ethanol.

There’s a really good primer on butanol here at Autoblog Green.

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But butanol has a few problems of it’s own too, but that just makes the news release all the more interesting.

The main hiccup for butanol at the moment is price. Production methods as they stand now have it priced at about US$3.70 a gallon if you buy it by the bargeload or around $6.80 per gallon in a 55 gallon drum.

Like ethanol, though, there’s people working on production methods that would lower the production cost through both improved methods and lower cost of inputs.

Environmental Energy Inc (EEI) is one of them, and the guy behind that company recently drove his unmodified Buick across the US, powered with butanol that he made himself in his own mini-lab. His website’s got a lot of interesting info on it, some of which I find a little suspect, but the vast mojority of it backed by other sources.

The other company looking very seriously at Butanol is the one that’s the subject of the first linked article in this post. EEI is a pretty small operation and whilst they guy’s done some admirable work, this second company is a lot better equipped to get a viable and sustainable butanol infrastructure up and running.

It’s BP Biofuels, and as you can see they’re pouring some serious money into this….

Last month BP announced that it will be working with the University of California, Berkeley, on a $500 million, 10-year program, part of which will be devoted to research on improving biofuels such as butanol. And last year BP announced a partnership with DuPont to develop new technology for making butanol. DuPont will provide expertise in biotechnology…..

Philip New, President of BP Biofuels:

Ethanol is a good start. But ethanol was not designed to be a fuel. No one sat down and said, “Let’s create a biomolecule that will operate in engines.” What happened was, people said ethanol can work in engines. As a lot of people are becoming aware, it’s good, but it has some drawbacks. Butanol is, we think, an innovation that overcomes many of the drawbacks.

You shouldn’t view butanol as being a competitor to ethanol. An ethanol plant can evolve into a butanol plant. And you can mix ethanol and butanol together, and it can actually help you use more ethanol.

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The big question here is how will this tie in with Saab’s BioPower range? Saab have focused on ethanol as an alternative fuel solution, but given butanol’s advantages over ethanol, will this render BioPower useless as a point of difference that Saab can claim over it’s competitors?

I think not.

Firstly, ethanol is the “here and now” solution. It’s in commercial production and is being distributed and sold right now as an alternative fuel to gasoline. For those that don’t want to buy a diesel Saab but still want to make their contribution to environmental friendliness (or cash in on their government’s green tax concessions), BioPower is a good solution.

Butanol, according to BP Biofuels, is still some time away. BP are still in a phase of their operation where they’re optimising their refining processes and haven’t got to their trial production phase yet.

Secondly, if all the claims about butanol are true, then Saab should still be able to market BioPower equally as well, as butanol’s backers claim it’ll end up as a drop-for-drop substitute for gasoline, which is already 100% compatible with BioPower.

What’s more, butanol also has a higher octane rating than gasoline (though it’s lower than ethanol), so Saab will once again be in a position to exploit that fact through their engine management and turbocharging expertise to get better performance out of the fuel.

It’ll be interesting times if the butanol revolution does come to fruition, but I tend to think Saab are on the right course and will be prepared for it when it comes, regardless of when that is.

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9 Comments

  1. Biobuthanol’s main drawback is actually that you get less energy per ton of biomass than for ethanol. Until this is solved ethanol is the best here and now alternative fuel. I believe synthetic diesel (made from biomass)and DiMethylEther (DME) will be the fuels of the future though, but that is a couple of years away just like biobuthanol.

  2. Mr B,

    That’s surprising as the http://www.butanol.com website (EEI link in the article) claims they can extract more butanol than ethanol out of a given amount of biomass.

    It seems like a new technology to me and it’s going to take some independant science to get the facts straight.

  3. Speaking as one that’s not a huge fan of ethanol, butanol seems to be a step forward in my biggest gripe area — lack of infrastructure to support it.

    However, thinking about the process logically, I believe that Mr. Bio is correct — it should yield a smaller amount of energy value for a given amount of biomass, especially at first, since the process takes an extra step or two. Perhaps theoretically it should have a higher yield, but practically will not?

    Again, I say this: internal combustion is around 30% efficient at best. The greater good will be served on technologies that get that number up vs. shifting consumption to another fuel. Fuel cells, plug-in biodeisel hybrids and the like are much better places for investment rather than in the alcohol infrastructure.

  4. Speaking as one that’s not a huge fan of ethanol, butanol seems to be a step forward in my biggest gripe area — lack of infrastructure to support it.

    However, thinking about the process logically, I believe that Mr. Bio is correct — it should yield a smaller amount of energy value for a given amount of biomass, especially at first, since the process takes an extra step or two. Perhaps theoretically it should have a higher yield, but practically will not?

    Again, I say this: internal combustion is around 30% efficient at best. The greater good will be served on technologies that get that number up vs. shifting consumption to another fuel. Fuel cells, plug-in biodeisel hybrids and the like are much better places for investment rather than in the alcohol infrastructure.

  5. Ted:

    Even though the Carnot cycle applies more to systems employed at power plants and other large systems that have elaborate heat recovery systems, that does NOT mean that this paper implies high efficiency IC engines are on the way!

    Per the paper, they’ve got to find a ‘reversible’ combustion process (!!) and they have to ‘minimize heat loss to surroundings’. That’s like saying that to climb Everest, you just need to keep walking! These obstacles have been known for ages and haven’t been improved upon. Reversing the combustion process requires esoteric fuel and/or additives, catalysts, etc. Reduced heat loss — how are you going to extract heat from exhaust gases? You can put a gas-gas heat exchanger on the inlet, but that only helps so much given the relative small heat difference and the pressure losses associated with it. Limiting the nitrogen intake would help a great deal, but is VERY difficult the way that we do it now. Finally, metal is a GREAT conductor of heat. Ceramics are not, so a ceramic engine would be good thermally, however they’re heavy and brittle.

    An IC setup burning a fuel/air mixture has so many efficiency issues right from the start that again I say: something more elegant has to come.

  6. The price is driven by the demand and subsidies. Ethanol is the price that it is (less per gallon than gasoline) because of subsidies. If not for state and federal subsidies the price would be more than gasoline. The corn farmers’ lobby (in the form of the NEVC http://www.e85fuel.com) have done a decent job of creating supply out there. Unfortunately the demand for E85 isn’t very strong yet and I think this is what’s slowing more widespread adoption of ethanol. After all, who would want to pay a little less for a tank of ethanol to get a lot fewer miles?

    There really is no market for biobutanol. Hardly anyone knows anything about it (far less than ethanol, which has been featured on national news magazine covers).

    If the demand for butanol goes up or the subsidies do (which I don’t necessarily favor), I don’t see buying it anytime soon (or ever) in the future. It might be better than ethanol, but like Betamax was better than VHS and Mac is better than PC (no comments necessary!) that’s not necessarily enough.

    Let me give a “shout-out” to fred, who I’m sure will weigh-in on this, but I’ll agree with him from what I’ve read biodiesel (but only the B100 variety) is even better than butanol. But the problem is reality and reality is that the vast majority of cars already in existence can’t run biodiesel. In these cases, I favor biobutanol. Also not mentioned is that biobutanol can be made in easily-and-cheaply-converted ethanol plants.

    Like eggs implies in his comment above, the future will likely see a diversification in fuels. Right now you go to a filling station (at least where I live) and basically your choice is between three different octane levels of gasohol (maybe #2 diesel (B0) too). In the future I see pumps with E85, E100, CNG, LPG, B5, B20, B100, biobutanol, maybe hydrogen, and electricity being added to your choices.

    I think the best solution I’ve seen yet (IMHO as usual) is a B100 PHEV much like the one Ovlov will introduce in their C30 Concept in China later this year.

    Or maybe a pure EV if they can get the electrical grid as a whole a little “greener”.

  7. Gripen,

    You were fine until the last sentence. Sure, the power companies could get a little “greener.”

    But I can say this with confidence though: California has got their rules and regulations related to the power industry all jacked up. Need an example? How about Enron- and I’m not talking about just accounting, either. The whole power deregulation implemented by good ol’ California forced power companies to buy power at prices around $800 per megawatt hour for example, while being capped at selling the same product back to the consumer at $80 per megawatt hour. And what do you know? They lost money hand over fist (nice being forced to sell their product at a 100 times less than cost). Thus all the wonderful rolling blackouts.

    Now CA has legislation to prevent power derived from coal power plants. Well guess what? Not only are sources of coal from places like Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado waaayyy cleaner burning than the crap back East and what they base most studies on, but also new technologies have been tested and are being implemented (notice GE’s commercials lately?) that bring the coal-based emissions down even more.

    Let’s not even mention nearly pointless attempts to reduce already insanely low quantities of toxins (“Less than one part-per-trillion of Mercury still just isn’t enough…let’s pass more legislation to get better scrubbers!”), all at the cost of, guess who, the regular folks. One part per trillion less, and your energy bill would only increase by 10%. What a great use of our dollars!

    Bottom line: sometimes rushing to “save the environment” in certain ways ends up being the more expensive and less effective method than if people sat down and thought about it.

  8. RJ: what I was commenting on was related to studies I’ve read regarding CO2 emissions comparing a car burning ethanol and an EV. The EV was judged by the power generation in the part of the country it was in.

    Surprisingly the ethanol put out less net emissions than the EV in certain parts of the country.

    By the way, RJ: I’m STILL fine. ;-P

    Here in California the power mix is this (as of 2004):

    Renewable (biomass & waste, Geothermal, small hydroelectric, solar, wind): 4%
    Coal: 29%
    Large hydroelectric: 20%
    Natural Gas: 45%
    Nuclear: 2%

    The reason I’m mentioning this is although I’m a supporter of EV, I do realize that it’s only as clean as how the power’s generated.

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