Cobalt Technologies builds biobutanol facility

The world of green chemicals had gone amok with demo facility announcements…

First we had Genomatica’s press release yesterday about its plans to build a bio-butanediol (BDO) demo facility in Italy in partnership with Chemtex; last week, Rivertop Renewables announced its plans to start construction of its semi-works glucaric acid facility in Missoula, Montana, this Fall; and today, biobutanol developer Cobalt Technologies announced that it will build a demo facility in Alpena, Michigan.

Let’s start with today’s news on bio-butanol and we’ll post a separate one for Genomatica and Rivertop Renewables.

The green blogger had the pleasure of talking with Cobalt Technologies late last year for a biobutanol article published at ICIS Chemical Business (subscription required). According to today’s press release, the company is collaborating with biorefinery technology firm American Process Inc. (API) to build a 470,000 gal/year n-butanol demo facility, where the biobutanol product will be pre-sold to chemical industry partners.

Chief financial officer Steve Shevick did not disclose specific chemical company names but said that key participants in the butanol space for chemical applications include DuPont, BASF, AkzoNobel, Eastman, and Oxea. Current chemical end use for n-butanol includes paints, solvents, acrylics, amines, plasticizers, stabilizers, preservatives, etc.

The company will not yet sell to the fuel market as initial market conditions for n-butanol right now are more favorable for the chemical market, said Shevick. However, Cobalt Technologies is still eyeing the fuel industry for its long term strategies.

Both Cobalt Technologies and API will market the biobutanol solution dubbed “GreenPower+” to biomass power facilities and other customers worldwide. GreenPower+ is an API patented process for extracting hemicelluloses sugars from woody biomass. The technology will also selectively converts part of a boiler cellulosic biomass feedstock into biobutanol. API said the GreenPower+ process enables cost effective cellulosic ethanol production at a small scale of 10m-20m gal/year, with an ethanol production cost ~$1/gal.

According to Shevick, potential production of biobutanol from waste wood and other cellulosic feedstocks is billions of gallons worldwide. Here are some of their initial estimates:

  • 1.77bn GPY at sugar cane bagasse power (Brazil, India, China across 232 sites)

  • 1.14bn GPY at wood biomass power and pellets (US and Europe across 126 sites)

  • 274m GPY at specialty pulp mills (Global across 26 mills – Low CAPEX option)
  • 175m GPY at Kraft pulp mills with batch digesters (SE United States – Low CAPEX option)

  • 4.60bn GPY using cane trash with C6 sugar technology (future) 
  • 518mn GPY at Kraft pulp mills with continuous digesters (US, Europe, Latin America, future)

API is currently constructing its own cellulosic ethanol refinery in the Alpena plant where Cobalt’s biobutanol process technology will be integrated. The ethanol production will start in early 2012 and will switch to biobutanol in mid-2012.

The Alpena biorefinery is funded in part by a $18m grant from the US Department of Energy and a $4m grant from the state of Michigan. The biorefinery will initially demonstrate the viability of converting hemicelluloses from woody biomass to fermentable sugars that can be used for ethanol production and eventually biobutanol.

Shevick said their biobased n-butanol price will be very competitive against current petrochemical-based materials in the market.

“Cobalt biobutanol will meet all relevant specs and will be price competitive. In general, customers say that they will not pay a premium for renewable butanol, though that remains to be tested. But we don’t need a price premium to be profitable.” – Shevick

I wonder how their cellulosic-based butanol price will match that of Gevo’s who is currently retrofitting an corn-based ethanol plant in Luverne, MN, to produce 18m gal/year of isobutanol.

According to ICIS, April contract price for petroleum-based n-butanol in the US were at a range of $1.10-$1.14/lb while isobutanol were at $1.15-$1.19/lb.

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