Biobutanol: Next renewable fuel?


SALEM, Ohio – Big oil is taking what may be the next big step in biofuels production.
Gas-station chain and fuel production giant BP partnered three years ago with DuPont to develop and market a renewable fuel source, and the team is on track to market biobutanol beginning in 2007.
Their plan includes an initial sales debut in England, and to eventually spread its use around the world.
Just the beginning. DuPont chairman and CEO Charles Holliday Jr. calls biobutanol “just the beginning” of the company’s use of renewable ingredients and natural processes to make fuels.
And John Browne, CEO of BP, said the fuel is the oil company’s shot at making global progress in reducing global emissions. BP statistics show transportation accounts for about 20 percent of global emissions, which are often faulted for causing environmental damages.
Both companies also agree there’s room for improvement when it comes to marketing bio-based fuels.
Major areas where they say improvements can be made include making biofuels compatible with existing pumps and distribution systems; blending at higher rates without requiring engine modifications; and increasing fuel economy.
And that’s where biobutanol comes in.
What’s biobutanol? According to DuPont, biobutanol is a gasoline additive that has a lower vapor pressure and tolerance to water contamination in gasoline blends, making its distribution easy with already-in-place pumps and trucking systems.
DuPont says the vapor pressure problem is a major issue that limits wider use of ethanol.
Biobutanol also has the potential to be blended into gasoline at higher concentrations than existing biofuels without the need to retrofit vehicles, and it offers better fuel economy than gasoline-ethanol blends, improving a car’s fuel efficiency and mileage, according to DuPont.
Inputs. Biobutanol will be manufactured from a variety of inputs, including sugar cane or sugar beets, corn, wheat, cassava or sorghum.
In the future, cellulosic feedstocks from fast-growing energy crops such as switchgrasses, or agricultural byproducts, such as straw and corn stalks, may also be used.
“We’re using the sciences of biology, genetics, genomics, biotechnology and fermentation chemistry to create more opportunities for agriculture. And the great news for farmers is that it’s more demand for agricultural products,” said Dean Oestreich, president of Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont.
Pro-ethanol. Oestreich said biobutanol is meant to complement and improve the current ethanol fuels industry, not to compete with it.
“We believe that in order to meet the global demand for renewable energy, the market will need to expand beyond the existing biofuels technology. And biobutanol will enhance the market for existing fuels, including ethanol.
“So, this is a win-win all the way through the system for biorenewables, including ethanol.”
Ball rolling. Since production of ethanol and biobutanol is similar, including many of the same inputs, existing ethanol plants can be switched over to produce the new fuel.
Work to turn English ethanol fermentation plants into biobutanol factories is already in process.
Officials there are also considering building more and bigger biobutanol production facilities in the United Kingdom as demand grows.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at


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