FocusBiobutanol for fuel expected in five years

20 February 2009 18:38  [Source: ICIS news]

By Doris de Guzman

NEW YORK (ICIS news)--Commercialisation of biobutanol for use as a fuel can be expected within the next 4 to 5 years, a consultant said on Friday.

“It will take some time to make a fuel-grade biobutanol as there is no market for it yet. In practice, biobutanol is a terrific fuel and better than ethanol, but developers have to go through certain hoops to get it commercialised,” Ron Cascone, manager of biofuels development at US consulting firm Nexant, told ICIS.

One major challenge to commercialisation is uncertainty of using a new biofuel, Cascone said. Nobody has used butanol commercially as a fuel so they do not know if car makers will accept it even if research says they're better than ethanol, he said.

Another issue is whether biobutanol costs on a commercial scale can really be proven competitive against ethanol production.

According to several developers, some of the advantages of biobutanol over ethanol include its higher energy density; its less corrosive nature, which benefits pipelines and car engines; its low moisture affinity; its ability to be transported in the existing gasoline infrastructure and its ease in mixing with gasoline or in being used alone in internal combustion engines.

California-based start-up firm Cobalt Biofuels plans to build a pilot biobutanol plant with a capacity of between 10,000 and 35,000 gal/year this year, and also aims to build a demonstration-scale plant with capacity between 2m and 10m gals/year by 2010 or 2011, said Steve Shevick, Cobalt’s chief financial officer.

“Beyond 2011, we hope to go to commercial scale. We expect some of our early efforts to be directed first to the chemical market and then to the fuel sector,” said Shevick.

UK-based Green Biologics is also aiming to build a commercial biobutanol demo plant this year, with 1,000 tonnes/year of capacity.

“Biobutanol represents a competitive product against petrochemical-based butanol in the chemicals sector, and with our technology’s ability to access lower-cost feedstock, it will be increasingly competitive in the biofuels sector too,” said Sean Sutcliffe, Green Biologics chief financial officer.

Butanol is currently used mainly as an industrial solvent.

US chemical firm DuPont and UK-based oil company BP are working to develop biobutanol as well as biobased-isobutanol also for fuel applications. The companies plan to start a demonstration plant early this year.

Colorado-based start-up firm Gevo also plans on having a 1m gal/year bio-isobutanol plant operating this summer, said Gevo CEO Patick Gruber.

“Our technology has already been proven at pilot scale. We can retrofit ethanol plants, converting them to isobutanol plants, and our production costs are expected to be lower than that of the cost of petrochemical based processes even at modest oil prices like what we have now,” said Gruber.

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By: Doris de Guzman
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