28 July 2009 16:46 [Source: ICIS news]
By Ryan Hickman
HOUSTON (ICIS news)--At the Old Town Fuel & Fiber mill in Maine, the US, the once-thriving bathroom tissue and paper towel-producing plant is striving to emerge as both an economic and scientific model for a burgeoning second generation of alternative fuels.
Still in its infancy on the biofuel front, ?xml:namespace>
The second-generation fuel has been touted as a superior product to the once-popular but ever controversial ethanol, the biggest name of the first-generation biofuels.
Biobutanol's promoters point to its low vapour pressure compared with corn-based ethanol, thereby making it easier to mix with gasoline. It is also a closer match to gasoline's energy DNA than ethanol, making it more attractive to run through the current gasoline delivery framework.
"In terms of the advantages, you can use it readily in existing infrastructures [such as] gasoline pipelines, and on the automotive side you can use it in traditional engines as well," said Divya Reddy, a biofuels analyst with Eurasia Group.
Biobutanol does have its downfalls, however, Reddy said.
Ethanol produces greater fuel yields from agriculture feedstocks than biobutanol.
"On the corn side, you get more from ethanol than from butanol," Reddy said.
Biobutanol can be made from farm-field raw materials such as corn and sugarcane, as well as waste biomass and switchgrass, but Old Mill's process capitalises on extracting cellulose, or sugars, from wood chips in the pulping process already taking place at the mill.
"I relate it to pulling maple syrup out of a hardwood tree," Old Town Fuel & Fiber mill president Dick Arnold said.
But what sets
Even though the domestic paper industry is lagging amid low-cost international competitors chewing up
In addition, the nuts and bolts of the plant are poised for an easy transition to biobutanol production.
"We have the resources in place in terms of space availability, permitting, waste water treatment, steam and power,"
Red Shield teamed up with the
Soon after, the coffers dried up and the project filed for bankruptcy, mired by the difficulties associated with ethanol production.
"We were faced with the economics of ethanol and struggles the ethanol industry was going through,"
That caught the attention of Patriarch Partners, a
The biobutanol initiative at
Cobalt Biofuels is honing in on non-agricultural feedstocks for making butanol, with a pilot plant currently turning wood into the fuel in California.
The plant is a staging site for what Cobalt president and CEO Rick Wilson hopes will be built up into a demonstration facility capable of producing 2-3m gal/year of butanol.
Cobalt is trying to separate itself in the marketplace with its recent technological developments, Wilson said.
"We couldn't use an existing fermentation process," he said. "The production rate of butanol is just so slow."
Wilson said Cobalt has patented a bio-reactor using waste biomass that accelerates the butanol 30 times from its natural state.
"It looks like something you'd see in a refinery but a biological version of that," the former BP engineer said.
A pulp and paper mill like Old Town would be an ideal site for a reactor that feeds off of wood waste.
Even though Wilson believes in biobutanol's superiority over ethanol, he think the two should be complementary, especially when it comes to gasoline blending.
"We are an enabler of the corn ethanol business," he said.
Back in Maine, Old Town ran a 24-hour trial last week that produced 1,000 lb of extract that could be transformed into butanol.
Arnold said his phone keeps ringing with players in the chemical and fuel sectors on the other end interested in what they are doing at the mill.
But Arnold admitted it would be at least a few years with help from the government and additional technological advancements before Old Town's demonstration plant could be taken to a commercial level and replicated by others at a competitive price point.
"We are confident commercialising technology is going to be the key to it," Arnold said. "We think this will be a commercially viable venture as we move ahead."
($1 = €0.70)
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