Chemical profile: US isobutanol

30 August 2013 09:37  [Source: ICB]

Isobutanol is a solvent that serves as an intermediate in the manufacture of a number of chemical products, such as esters, plasticizers, paints and paint solvents, and as a diesel and gasoline fuel additive.

It is most often used as a feedstock for isobutyl acetate, which is then used to make lacquers and a variety of similar coatings, and as a flavouring in food production. It is also rapidly emerging as a biofuel and has several properties that make it more desirable as an additive than ethanol.

The global production of isobutanol is rising rapidly, following an increase in industrialisation in China, Latin America and other emerging markets, as well as for isobutanol's growing number of industrial and commercial uses for inks, paints, coatings and resins.

The US is expected to produce 110,000 tonnes of isobutanol in 2013, about 16.4% of projected global production of 670,000 tonnes. US production is about 82% of the country's 134,000-tonne capacity. Global production is expected to rise by 15% over the next three years.

The major producers of isobutanol using petroleum feedstock processes include Eastman, Oxea, ExxonMobil, Celanese and BASF.

Global demand is growing through new applications and is surging in emerging markets, as well as through natural economic expansions in developed economies.

Demand in China and throughout Asia and Latin America is growing, along with demand for commercial inks, paint, lacquer coatings and demand for agricultural chemicals.

Prices have fallen back slightly since the beginning of 2013, but have been fairly stable as the US economy continues a slow-growth pattern, while the eurozone and China have faced slower growth than expected. The ICIS-assessed US contract price for delivered product is hovering at an average of $2,910-$2,932/tonne.

Prices vary widely for large volumes. US export prices are therefore considerably lower, based on the larger average volume of those sales.

The cost of feedstock propylene has put upward pressure on isobutanol prices during the third quarter of 2013 as producers try to maintain margins, but is expected to ease as the market enters the fourth quarter of 2013.

Isobutanol is created using petroleum feedstock through the carbonylation of propylene. Of the two common processes used, hydroformylation is the more common. It creates a mixture of isobutyraldehydes, which are hydrogenated to the alcohols and then separated. Reppe carbonylation is also used. New technologies are emerging to commercialisation that use a number of biosynthesis processes. Isobutanol produced through the fermentation of organic matter has become a promising biofuel.

A slowly reviving US construction industry should help push demand in the fourth quarter of 2013 and into 2014.

New and promising uses for iso-butanol are also expected to increase demand in areas so far unexplored.

US biofuel producer Gevo has begun commercial production of isobutanol from fermentation at a plant in Luverne, Minnesota. Production at that plant is expected to reach production of 1m gal/month, or about 55,000 tonnes/year when full production is reached in 2014. In August, the producer Optinol, a partnership between Syngest, United Technologies and Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, reported that it has used a process that reportedly creates n-butanol, an isobutanol isomer, from sugars in a process that meets cost parity with ethanol.

Isobutanol produces 82% of the combustible energy of gasoline, compared to just 67% for ethanol. And, unlike ethanol, butanol does not dissolve water, so it poses less corrosion danger to pipelines and engines.

In a separate breakthrough, researchers at the University of Michigan, in conjunction with others at the University of California - Los Angeles, say they have found a combination of E. coli bacteria and Trichoderma reesei fungus that creates isobutanol through the digestion of corn stalks and leaves. That process converted 62% of the energy in the vegetation and can be used to make plastics, the researchers said. Butamax, a partnership between DuPont and BP, plans to alter ethanol plants for isobutanol production.

By: Bill Bowen
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