InterviewForgotten technology could drive future of biofuels

03 June 2009 14:59  [Source: ICIS news]

LONDON (ICIS news)--Biobutanol is seen as a long-term replacement for less-efficient first generation biofuels but, rather than requiring huge advances in technology, the production method actually predates the modern petrochemicals industry, a biofuels expert said on Wednesday.

“It’s not a matter of ‘can we find a biological way of making this compound?’, we don’t have to, it was made nearly a hundred years ago on a huge scale all over the planet,” said Martin Tangney, director of the Biofuel Research Centre at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland.

Tangney’s team looks at ways of producing biofuels using acetone butanol ethanol fermentation (ABE), a process which has declined since the 1950s as petrochemistry developed cheaper processes to create chemicals and fuels.

“The combustion engine was designed to run on bioethanol. Everything was made biochemically [in the early 20th century] as there was no real dominant oil industry. It was just a matter of pure commerce that this particular way of making these chemicals just got out-competed by the petrochemicals industry,” said Tangney.

ABE processes were used on a large scale for much longer in closed economies such as the USSR, China and South Africa.

It was not until recently that big business started to look again at butanol-from-biomass as a fuel of the future rather than a forgotten technology.

Energy major BP and US chemicals group DuPont are building a biobutanol demonstration plant in the UK, while California-based start-up firm Cobalt Biofuels aims to build a demonstration-scale plant with capacity between 2m and 10m gal/year by 2010 or 2011.

According to the Napier’s Biofuels Research Centre, butanol has several advantages over ethanol as a motor fuel.

Butanol’s energy content is higher than ethanol and it can run in unmodified engines at any blend with petrol. Unlike ethanol, it can also be blended with diesel and biodiesel.

It is also less susceptible to the presence of water than ethanol/gasoline blends and therefore can use the industry’s existing distribution infrastructure without modifying blending facilities, storage tanks or retail station pumps.

The demand for such advanced biofuels is potentially huge.

The US government is calling for 36bn gal/year of renewable fuels to be blended into the national supply by 2022, with the Environmental Protection Agency calling for two thirds of this to be from “advanced biofuels”. It defines this as “renewable fuel other than ethanol derived from starch”.

Despite the advantages of butanol, Tangney does not believe there is a single-product answer to meeting sustainable fuels quotas and reducing carbon emissions.

“If you go back a year, the general perception would be ‘this will be the one biofuel that will dominate the market and this will be the feedstock’. I don’t think that’s true anymore,” he said.

“The sustainable fuels sector will contain a number of different fuels that will be more appropriate in one place than another and will be made in different ways. In different countries, waste will mean different things,” added Tangney.

In Europe, the use of used cooking oils and animal fat was seen as an efficient way of both meeting environmental targets and solving waste management issues.

“It’s an emphasis on sustainable biofuels rather than first, second or third generation. This is biological material that has already been generated. It’s as much of a waste management issue as it is a biofuels issue,” said Tangney.

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By: Mark Watts
+44 20 8652 3214

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