Biobutanol: The Next Best Advanced Biofuel?

New developments in the biobutanol world take root
| December 02, 2010

Any fears biobutanol producers may have had regarding public acceptance, future use or a general misunderstanding of its potential could be coming to an end. For some time, biobased butanol producers and supporters like Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC or Gevo Inc. have touted its advantages compared to ethanol. Butamax boasts its biobutanol’s ability for higher blend concentrations in gasoline, which then creates a higher level of renewable energy in every gallon of fuel. In addition, a product like Butamax’s requires zero modifications to automobiles and infrastructure, putting the product into the gold-standard class of drop-in fuels.

Gevo, the Colorado-based company, also points out its product’s high energy density qualities and drop-in capabilities, and says the isobutanol it produces has characteristics that make it attractive to urban gasoline markets, where ozone level requirements under the Clean Air Act constitute the use of low Reid Vapor Pressure fuels. All of that sounds good but now, people (important people) are not only listening, but they’re taking biobutanol-based action.

In Brazil, a country that knows a thing or two about biofuel development, U.K.-based Butamax has opened a biobutanol technology laboratory to research and eventually engineer a biobutanol production method utilizing, you guessed it, sugarcane. In Brazil where a broad biofuel plan based on sugarcane ethanol exists, one could argue a new facility, especially one that produces a different product, might get a cold reception. “On the contrary,” says Tim Potter, Butamax CEO. “Brazil’s understanding of the ethanol biofuels industry has enabled advanced discussions on how biobutanol production could offer an export opportunity for mill owners in Brazil.” Support for Butamax’s product doesn’t end in Brazil either. Butamax has R&D operations on four continents, where Potter says efforts are collaborative. 

Butamax isn’t the only company to get approval by a major player in the biofuels industry, either. The U.S. EPA has approved Gevo’s isobutanol, listing its fuel as the first-ever isobutanol in the agency’s Fuel Registration Directory as an additive for gasoline blending.

While it may not be a household term yet, could biobutanol be the next best available biofuel? If it’s any indication, support from countries like Brazil or entities like EPA could be showing that all those advantages highlighted by Butamax and Gevo could be something soon discussed during the evening meal. 

—Luke Geiver