Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Better Biofuel?

Some good news on the horizon. Assuming that ADM sees a profit for itself, they may even purchase the necessary Legislators to move it forward.

(PN is Philip New, the President of BP Biofuels. This is an interview from Technology Review.)

...But ethanol was not designed to be a fuel. No one sat down and said, "Let's create a biomolecule that will operate in engines." What happened was, people said ethanol can work in engines. As a lot of people are becoming aware, it's good, but it has some drawbacks. Butanol is, we think, an innovation that overcomes many of the drawbacks.

You shouldn't view butanol as being a competitor to ethanol. An ethanol plant can evolve into a butanol plant. And you can mix ethanol and butanol together, and it can actually help you use more ethanol.

So how is butanol better?

PN: The key way is higher energy density. Whereas ethanol is around about two-thirds the energy density [of gasoline], with butanol we're in the high eighties [in terms of percent].
It's less volatile [than ethanol]. It isn't as corrosive, so we don't have issues with it at higher concentrations beginning to eat at aluminum or polymer components in fuel systems and dispensing systems. And it's not as hydroscopic--it doesn't pick up water, which is what ethanol can do if you put it in relatively low concentrations. So we can put it through pipelines

...You can make butanol with exactly the same stuff you use to make ethanol. We can make it from sugar, we can make it from corn, we can make it from sugar beets. Any sugar-starch that's going into the fermentation of ethanol you can [use to] make butanol.

Ethanol today depends heavily on government subsidies. How economical is butanol?

PN: I'm not sure that it needs too much specific help. What I'd ask for more is a level playing field. For example, a transition away from subsidizing biofuels on the basis of volume towards subsidizing on the basis of energy content would represent a level playing field. By subsidizing volume, you're effectively supporting less-energy-efficient alternatives.

Upshot? Butanol's about 3-5 years out.

HT: John Lott

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