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.
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.
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.