Butanol: The New Fuel Alternative

Backed by billionaire, biofuel challenges ethanol as gas substitute

Richard Branson

Richard Branson

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Possibly coming next year to a gas station near you: butanol, billed as the higher-power, more easily integrated alternative to ethanol.

According to a Bloomberg report, the colorless alcohol is set to hit the United States next year. Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC, funded by BP and DuPont Co., is retrofitting a Minnesota ethanol plant to churn out butanol in commercial volumes in 2015. It has also partnered with several ethanol producers with a combined capacity of 900 million gallons to make the switch to butanol when the technology is ready. For some perspective, the United States can produce around 14 billion gallons of ethanol a year.

Meanwhile, billionaire Richard Branson and French oil producer Total SA are backing Gevo Inc., Englewood, Colo., which operates a butanol distillery. Both butanol producers have said that clients are already lined up for large-scale deliveries.

"This is the future of renewable fuels," Branson told Bloomberg. "It's also hugely versatile so can be created to produce gasoline fuel blends, rubbers, solvents, plastics and jet fuels, which give us scope to enter into a range of markets."

Butanol is attempting to compete with ethanol, both of which can be blended into regular gasoline. According to companies such as Butamax and Gevo, the fuel can be treated just like ethanol in the distribution infrastructure and vehicle engines.

Butanol has been around for decades as a byproduct of oil refining, Bloomberg reports, but recently the renewable fuels industry has successfully made it from crops. Corn is the primary feedstock but it reportedly can also be made with sugar cane and cellulosic biomass, creating biobutanol.

The biofuel has passed a few early tests, most recently fueling up BMWs at the London 2012 Olympic Games. According to Wilmington, Del.-based Butamax CEO Paul Beckwith, several gasoline retailers had indicated interest in his products, but he did not disclose names.

"We've advanced steadily, and we now are at the phase where we are commercializing the technology," Beckwith told Bloomberg. "We are spending significant sums of money. The technology is being implemented as we speak."

According to the news agency, Branson is the second-largest investor in Gevo, which has tested biobutanol with the U.S. Department of Defense and Coast Guard, and as a racing-car fuel. Branson's own Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. is also interested in the alternative fuel.

The biofuel's supporters say it packs more power than ethanol, with 84% of the energy content of gasoline (compared to ethanol's 66%). This decreases the need to fill-up more frequently or theoretically discount the price as sharply, such as with E85.

Butanol is also reportedly less expensive to blend into gasoline because it has a similar vapor pressure, so refiners do not have to strip out butane and other products from gasoline to stabilize the mixture, which is required when blending ethanol, the Bloomberg report notes.

And while the EPA limits the amount of ethanol that can blended into gasoline at 15% for cars made after 2001, butanol is said to be less corrosive could be used in up to a 16% blend.