By EDUARD GISMATULLIN and KARI LUNDGREN
Butanol, the gasoline substitute promoted by billionaire
Richard Branson, is headed for its debut at US pumps as soon
as next year in a challenge to ethanols domination of
the $26 billion renewable fuels market.
Like ethanol, the colorless alcohol can be brewed from corn,
though it packs more energy when mixed into gasoline. Butamax
Advanced Biofuel, funded by DuPont and BP, is retrofitting an
ethanol plant in Minnesota to begin making butanol in
commercial volumes in 2015.
Gevo, backed by French oil producer Total and Branson through
his Virgin Green Fund, already runs a distillery 60 miles
away. Both say theyve lined up clients for large-scale
This is the future of renewable fuels, Branson
said. Its 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
The nascent industry is trying to take share from ethanol --
both may be blended as a clean
with traditional gasoline. Companies like Butamax
and Gevo are urging more producers to retrofit their plants
on the technological promise that little else is needed --
the distribution networks and vehicle engines work just as
well with butanol as they do with ethanol.
The optimism contrasts with a series of disappointments by
oil company sponsors. Several have cut or killed various
types of biofuels research because they couldnt get
BP, based in London, and Royal Dutch Shell from The Hague
have scaled back work on various types of biofuels made with
alternatives to corn and sugar cane because of difficulty in
making a laboratory success work at a commercial scale.
There is certainly potential, but there have been quite
considerable technical problems in the technology
butanol, said Clare Wenner, a transport analyst at
London-based Renewable Energy Association. Its
taking a lot longer than anybody thought years ago.
While butanol has existed for decades as a chemical byproduct
of oil refining
, making it from crops is
a success for the renewables energy industry. The process
that now depends on corn as a raw material can be adapted to
work with other substances such as sugar cane and cellulosic
biomass, resulting in a fuel called biobutanol, according to
Biobutanol makers can point to a few successes: BP fueled BMW
cars during the London 2012 Olympic Games with the brew.
Several gasoline retailers had indicated interest in
Butamaxs product, said CEO Paul Beckwith. He
didnt disclose names.
Weve advanced steadily, and we now are at the
phase where we are commercializing the technology,
Beckwith said. We are spending significant sums of
money. The technology
is being implemented as
Branson is the second-largest investor in Gevo, with an
indirect stake of almost 5%, according to data compiled by
Bloomberg. The company tested biobutanol with the US
Department of Defense and Coast Guard and in racing car
fuels. Virgin Atlantic Airways, founded by Branson, is
interested in the renewable fuel.
Biobutanols promoters say it packs more energy than
ethanol and is easier for refiners to blend with gasoline.
That would give oil companies more options to comply with
rules in the US and European Union mandating more use of
biofuels that reduce carbon emissions from petroleum.
Biobutanol is a drop-in fuel molecule that represents
the next significant change required to meet the growth in
demand for lower carbon, renewable fuels for
transportation, said Sheila Williams, a spokeswoman at
BP. Commercializing an all- new energy technology
properly takes time, despite being one of the most advanced
Butamax has pulled together several ethanol producers, such
as Big River Resources and Siouxland Ethanol, willing to
switch when the technology
is ready. They have
about 900 million gallons of combined capacity. The US can
make about 14 billion gal/year of ethanol.
Gevos plant in Luverne, Minnesota, is running at about
two-thirds of 18 million gal/year capacity after a yeast
fermenting facility contamination in September 2012, said
Brett Lund, the companys general counsel. Billionaire
Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of a venture capital firm
bearing his surname, also is an investor in Gevo.
The new fuel would allow policy makers and governments to
increase use of renewable energy in gasoline to meet carbon
dioxide emission reduction targets.
The US currently limits ethanol to 15% of the content of
gasoline for cars made after 2001. Many older cars can only
cope with weaker concentrations of the renewable fuel.
The same engines could take a blend thats 16% butanol,
which is less corrosive than ethanol, said Claire Curry, an
industry analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London.
President Barack Obamas administration in November
proposed oil companies for the first time reduce use of
ethanol in gasoline. The USs Environmental Protection
Agency plans to approve a new requirement later this year
because the industry has almost approached the maximum level
of using the renewable diluter for safe use in all
With ethanol dominant as a gasoline additive, the US
fuel industry simply hasnt had much reason for adoption
of butanol, said Pavel Molchanov, an analyst with
Raymond James Financial. However, that may be starting
to change now that ethanol is hitting a blend wall.
$6 Billion Investment
Investment in butanol plants may reach $6 billion by 2020 as
ethanol makers switch their plants to the new process,
according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The brewing process involves fermentation of corn or other
biomass sugars by yeast microorganism transforming glucose
into biobutanol. The biological yeast is different to the one
used for ethanol production. There are some other distillation
alterations making refining
Gevos products are beginning to enter multiple
markets, Branson said. Jet fuel is initially the
most significant for Virgin but today it is more a question
of which opportunities make the most commercial
Butanol has a few advantages. It holds 84% of the energy
content of gasoline, more than ethanols 66%. That means
drivers can travel further on a tank with butanol blended in
than they would with ethanol.
Biobutanol is also cheaper to blend into gasoline supplies
because it has a similar vapor pressure -- the pressure at
which a liquid turns into a gas. That means refiners
dont have to strip out butane and other products out of
gasoline to stabilize their mixture as they do when they
blend in ethanol.