Butanol vs. Ethanol

Forbes reports that ethanol could be on its way out in the next 10 years thanks to a scientific breakthrough.

April 15, 2013

NEW YORK – Butanol could become the next fuel of the future entering the fray, thanks to a new discovery that could “solve many of the problems associated with ethanol,” reports Forbes.

The news source notes that industry stakeholders such as BP have been seeking ways to make a cost-efficient transition to butanol, the "advanced biofuel," and a scientific breakthrough could make this possible.

“Butanol trumps ethanol in several ways: Adding ethanol to gasoline reduces fuel mileage, but butanol packs almost as much energy as gas, meaning fewer fill-ups. Butanol also doesn't damage car engines like ethanol, so more of it can be blended into gas. And because butanol doesn't separate from gasoline in the presence of water, it can be blended right at the refinery, while ethanol has to be shipped separately from gas and blended closer to the filling station,” writes Forbes.

But even with the new advancements, producing butanol in the U.S., where there’s already 200 ethanol-producing plants, could cost roughly $15 million to modify each of those facilities to produce butanol.

Duncan Wass, a professor of chemistry at the University of Bristol in the U.K., presented new research at the annual American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans on a family of new catalysts that produced 95% butanol in the lab. "They hold the prospect of being able to convert ethanol to butanol in high yield, high selectivity and at large-scale," Wass said.

Wass estimates it could be six years to commercialization of butanol if the next steps in the process go off with out a hitch — it will take several years to design, build and test new fuels at scale in a pilot plant.

“The beauty of these catalysts is that they can use all sources of ethanol biologically derived from any crop,” said Wass. Forbes notes that corn stalks, wood, leaves, and switch grass are all being studied as sources of non-food biofuel.