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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pumping Up Butanol

Air Date: Week of

Photo: Andy Aden.jpg Caption: Andy Aden, program researcher at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. Credit: Photo courtesy of: National Renewable Energy Lab

Is Butanol the answer to the world's energy needs? BP and Dupont have recently teamed up to develop Butanol using biomass as a base, instead of petroleum. They’re claiming bio-butanol is cheaper, burns cleaner and will power any car. Host Steve Curwood interviews Andy Aden of National Renewable Energy Lab, in Golden Colorodo to learn more.


CURWOOD: Big business is making is making some big plays in the alternative energy arena. Oil giant BP is teaming up with Cal Tech to make cheaper solar cells using nano technology. The company believes the novel process could help relieve the worldwide shortage of silicon. And just when we were getting used to putting ethanol in our tanks now there’s a new biofuel coming down the pipe. BP and DuPont have announced plans to start selling butanol. Now if butanol sounds a lot like ethanol, it is. They are chemically related. But butanol delivers more miles to the gallon, it’s not corrosive like ethanol and it can be burned in gasoline engines without modifications. Right now butanol costs more than gasoline but there are new processes that could make it much cheaper, and that’s what BP and DuPont seem to be counting on.

Andy Aden is a process engineer at the National Renewable Energy lab in Golden, Colorado and specializes in biomass energy sources. Andy, thanks for joining us.

ADEN: Thank you, Steve.

Andy Aden, program researcher at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. (Photo courtesy of: National Renewable Energy Lab)

CURWOOD: So, Andy, BP and DuPont say they are going to start selling this next year in Great Britain, but I never heard of Butanol until they announced this deal.

ADEN: I think it’s actually caught quite a few people off guard and people are asking the questions - should I be interested in this? Why is this special? How close is this to ethanol? How different is this to ethanol? It’s got a lot of people asking a lot of questions, but I think that is a good thing.

CURWOOD: What’s really exciting about Butanol?
ANDY: The really exciting thing about Butanol is the fact that we have another choice for a biofuel. Before out there we had one choice for a fuel. Well, a couple choices, you know gasoline or diesel. Now we’ve got choices in the form of E-10 or E-85. And these biofuels in addition to being better for the environment are becoming a lot more economically attractive with the high price of petroleum. Now you’ve got butanol coming on to the scene and it gives consumers an even larger spectrum and diversity of choices for fuels. And that’s something that we’ve never had in the United States before and so it’s really exciting.

CURWOOD: How is the bio-butanol that BP and DuPont are talking about, how is this different from the butanol being produced these days in the United States by the chemical companies?

ANDY: Well butanol is currently produced from petroleum, specifically from either propaline or ethaline. DuPont is looking to do it biologically. Doing it from biomass sources, either corn stalks and husks or corn or sugar beets, something along those lines. It’s through a simple fermentative process that’s actually been around for quite some time. This was done commercially back in the early 1900’s through the 1950’s to produce not only butanol but other solvents as well- acetone, ethanol and other byproduct organic acids and such.

CURWOOD: So the same process that makes butanol, can in fact, be used to make ethanol, huh?

ADEN: Well, for biobutanol it’s produced by a fermentation the same way that ethanol is produced by a fermentation. You just simply use different organisms. For ethanol you’re using a yeast, butanol is produced using a bacteria.

CURWOOD: Explain to me though, what the difference would be for consumers who go for these products. If ethanol is coming out of one pump and butanol another, what is the choice that I should make as a consumer?

ADEN: Well, maybe that’s the question of what benefits does butanol have over ethanol and vice versa. Butanol has a higher energy content than ethanol, pretty close to gasoline maybe 85 or 90 percent. So, you don’t get into the lost fuel mileage issue that you do potentially with ethanol. That’s one potential benefit for using it. Another one is that it integrates well into the existing fuel infrastructure with petroleum and gasoline.

CURWOOD: Andy, I need you to help look inside the thinking process at DuPont and BP. They’ve announced this partnership to go forward with butanol as a fuel and sell it in the United Kingdom. What’s their game plan? Are they going to use the old process that was used by chemical companies or do they have a new process up their sleeve? And are they going to sell this just as butnol or do you think they’ll sell this as some kind of blend?

ADEN: If I were to get into their minds, I say they’d probably be starting this as some kind of fuel blend to meet the EU requirements for 2010. To do it within the time frame that they are talking about, which is in the next couple of years, they’re going to have to use existing technology. Perhaps, tweaked I guess is how they would probably say it but it’s going to be mostly based off of past research. But being the large companies that both BP and DuPont are they have the resources and the know how to be able to throw both personnel and biochemical tools at this type of problem and really make some significant technological achievements.

CURWOOD: I understand this gentleman David Ramey of Environmental Energy has come up with a new process to make butanol and he’s burned it actually in a car, driven it all the way across the country. What’s his process and how does it differ from the present process used when butanol is made from chemical reactions?

ADEN: What David Ramey is doing to improve the process is to take the fermentation reaction and to separate it into two different reactions so instead of having one bacteria that does this reaction inefficiently, he takes two separate organisms, separates them out into two reactions and does it more efficiently where you can get potentially higher yields in a shorter amount of time.

CURWOOD: Andy Aden is a process engineer at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. Thanks so much, Andy.

ADEN: Thank you, Steve, it’s been a pleasure.



National Renewable Energy Laboratory


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