By this spring, drivers in the U.K. will encounter an unfamiliar, and unprecedented, option at the pump: gasoline blended with a corn-based alcohol called butanol. It's part of a pilot project run by energy company BP, which aims to gauge public reaction to the new fuel. Butanol is easier to store and transport than existing biofuels and has an energy content more comparable to that of gasoline. Now, with more efficient ways to make it on the horizon, an increasing number of experts think butanol is poised to overtake ethanol as the best-selling alternative fuel on the market.
Like ethanol, butanol is a type of alcohol that's made by fermenting sugars with microbes, such as bacteria or yeast. Most ethanol is produced from corn, wheat and sugarcane; the butanol on tap in Britain is made in China, from corn.
For now, making butanol is far less efficient than making ethanol in large part because it's more toxic to the microbes that ferment it. As a result, every bushel of corn yields less than 2 percent butanol, versus about 12 percent for ethanol. To change that, BP has enlisted DuPont scientists to genetically engineer hardier microbes. According to John Ranieri, head of biofuels development for DuPont, this will drastically improve butanol's yield, clearing the way for what is potentially a much more useful fuel.
Butanol has a chemical structure that provides advantages over ethanol. For instance, unlike ethanol, which is difficult to store and can corrode pipelines, butanol could make use of existing infrastructure. It could also be blended into conventional gasoline at higher rates than ethanol because of its low vapor pressure, which decreases its volatility and reduces fumes. And its higher energy content means it would provide better fuel economy than today's biofuel of choice.
All of these advantages have made butanol a hot topic among everyone from biotech backers to Boeing, which recently partnered with Richard Branson's Virgin Fuels to investigate the use of alternative jet fuels, including butanol blends. Gregory Stephanopoulos, a professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who researches biofuels, says, "The real challenge is to make organisms that can tolerate butanol."
BP and DuPont aim to do just that by 2010. In the meantime, the companies are busy preparing for the biofuel boom, building the first-ever butanol demonstration plant, in England. By late 2009, the plant will turn out about 5,000 gallons of butanol every year, initially all from locally grown crops. Soon after, the team plans to convert an ethanol plant in the same complex.
Of course, there's a huge market for effective alternative fuels, both to meet the growing demand for automotive fuel—expected to increase by more than 25 percent by 2030, even as traditional oil reserves are depleted—and to find fuels that release fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The Department of Energy has promised to spend more than $1 billion on biofuel research over the next few years. But although American biofuel use has more than doubled since 2003—to 5.6 billion gallons per year, or 2.6 percent of total consumption—today's alternative fuels are far from ideal. Our ethanol and biodiesel supplies are derived completely from food crops, such as corn and soybeans. They require large amounts of land and water to grow. Far better is the possibility of producing fuels from cellulose, like cornstalks and other plant refuse.
DuPont, among others, is working on engineering enzymes that will enable that process for both ethanol and butanol. "The solutions definitely exist today to change the transportation-fuel mix," Ranieri says, "and to do it much more quickly."
“FOOD” ETHANOL IS NOT SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE.
Last August (2006) I questioned the morality of burning food or corn/ethanol in our vehicles. I remain convinced that the production of “food”/ethanol is simply wrong and others around the world are beginning to agree.
A June 12, 2007 article states; “China’s communist rulers announced a moratorium on the production of ethanol from corn and other food crops yesterday at the very time that Western leaders are rushing to embrace alternative food-based fuel technology. Another Chinese decision states that “...as droughts, and pollution have led to hundreds of millions of people going without regular drinking water… calculated each gallon of ethanol required 8.310 gallons of water for growing corn and another 30-37 gallons for conversion to fuel…if they are using corn for fuel, they are not going to get the water free”.
In America, the land of free flowing streams and clean lakes, we have yet to consider water as a limiting factor. During my career, I often told students and anyone who might listen that we would one day pay a very high price for drinking water and may see bloodshed over water rights. Those days are here sooner than I expected. We are now paying eight dollars or more per gallon for drinking water just to appear fashionable. This could easily become mandatory as competition for clean water increases. Also, I believe it is morally wrong for any company to have unlimited use of our groundwater and then return their polluted water to our streams.
Oh yes, just in case you thought you would be burning ethanol “Made in America” to help our farmers, you should know this. On top of the federal ethanol mandate, federal law grants a 50-cent tax credit for each gallon of ethanol a blender buys. Both domestic and imported ethanol qualifies for these subsidies. Chinese ethanol, however, benefits from one additional U.S. subsidy. In 2004, the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im), a federal agency that finances the exports of U.S. companies, subsidized construction of an “ethanol dehydration facility” in Trinidad and Tobago—exactly the sort of facility through which foreign ethanol passes duty-free into the U.S. So much for “made in America”!
In his essay Who Owns America? Dr. John Ikerd, University of Missouri, said it best. “Many issues concerning the natural environment are fundamentally moral or ethical issues. We should not be buying and selling pollution rights, because no individual has the moral right to pollute in the first place, and thus, has no right to sell it…Pollution of the environment is fundamentally, morally wrong, the same as it is morally wrong to kill, to steal, or enslave.”
To further quote Dr. Ikerd, “Any system of development that is not ecologically sound and economically viable and socially responsible just quite simply is not sustainable over time.” In my opinion, the ethanol scam fails the test of all three. The high use of water, natural gas, corn and the resultant pollution of air and water make it ecologically unsound. Without tax subsidies it is not economically viable. And due to both of these, the production of ethanol is most certainly not socially responsible. Given time, the ethanol initiative will ultimately fail. The landscape will be left with tax constructed monuments to short-sighted greed and to a government’s rush to quick-fix the fuel problem.
Very good article.
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