Alternative Energy

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Alternative energy news, and information about renewable energy technologies.

Nov 14

Making Bio-based Butanol More Competitive

Posted in Biofuels | Energy Inventions | Ethanol Fuel

Bio-based Butanol We all want to live in a clean and green environment and leave this planet in a livable condition for future generations. Scientists are continuously trying to find alternative clean and green fuel for our daily use. These days we hear and read about ethanol and biobutanol as alternative fuels. Biobutanol seems to have several advantages over ethanol. New pipelines are not required for transportation of biobutanol – existing pipelines will do. Biobutanol is less corrosive compared to ethanol. Biobutanol is less prone to water contamination. Biobutanol can be used alone in internal combustion engines or it can be mixed with gasoline. Biobutanol provides more energy per gallon than ethanol.

Using biobutanol as fuel is nothing new. Earlier it was produced from fermented sugars drawn from corn glucose. But large scale commercial production of such biofuels was not possible due to high recovery costs, low yields and easy availability of conventional fuels. But conditions are different now. Our environment is more polluted, reserves of conventional fuels are not going to last forever and gasoline prices keep fluctuating alarmingly.

According to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemical engineer Nasib Qureshi tried a modified method of producing biobutanol. His quest for preparing biobutanol from wheat straw started in 2003 because wheat straw is present in abundance and its cost would be lower than corn-glucose dependent feedstock.

Clostridium bacteria is a favorite of scientists for the purpose of fermentation. Nasib Qureshi also used this Clostridium for the important task of fermentation. Preparation of biofuels mainly involves four preparatory steps such as pretreatment, hydrolysis, fermentation and recovery. These steps have to be carried out separately and sequentially. But Qureshi and his team members deviated from this traditional method and combined three of the four steps. They employed a procedure known as “gas stripping” to extract the biobutanol. First the wheat straw has been pretreated with dilute sulphuric acid or other chemicals. Next the material is fermented in a bioreactor containing three different types of commercial enzymes and a culture of C. beijerinckii P260, a strain Qureshi obtained from Professor David Jones of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Here Qureshi has combined the two steps.

The bacteria and enzymes do their jobs simultaneously. First the enzymes hydrolyze the straw and release simple sugars then the bacterias start fermenting those sugars into acetone, butanol and ethanol. Butanol is produced in greatest quantity but other two are also valuable components. “Feb batch feeding” method increased the butanol production. Qureshi says he is planning to scale up production levels in 2009. “Then, we’ll look at the economics of using hydrolyzed wheat straw to see how we’re doing and move this process forward.”

  • Gail Feddern

    Sounds like a winner!

    How does it compare to methane gas?

  • Jeff Baker

    There is a special relationship between ethanol and water, that butanol and gasoline don’t have. Butanol will mix with 7 to 9% water. Gasoline will mix with pre-bonded 4% hydrous ethanol. Liquid ethanol will combust with up to 50% water mixed in. Above 50% water, hydrous ethanol needs to be vaporized.

    Ethanol’s compatibilty with water is the very thing that makes it superior. This is what Phil Ratte (Mechanical Engineer, BME University of Minnesota) says about ethanol in solution with water: “From 1981 to 1989, I worked with Herb Hansen, who had been an engineer on a WW II submarine, and a former captain of a nuclear submarine. We developed two prototype cars, a Ford Pinto Station Wagon and a Mitsubishi Sedan, that ran as well on 65 proof ethanol (2/3 water and 1/3 ethanol) as they did on unleaded regular gas.”

    So here’s an example of two respectable researchers who ran vehicles on a vaporized solution of 1/3 ethanol and 2/3 water. How is that possible after you have diluted the low BTUs of ethanol even further, down to 26,000 BTUs? It’s because ethanol is extremely volitile and has a very high vaporization rate and flame speed. This may facilitate splitting water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen inside the combustion chamber.

    Dongfeng, a major Chinese auto maker is introducing a car this year that runs on 65% ethanol and 35% water. This is a standard internal combustion engine equipped with a compact fuel processing device attached to the intake. Probably a vaporizer combined with a water splitting device. Possibly microwaves, ultrasound, or capacitor spark plugs. Dongfeng claims hydrogen is formed. The Chinese are using ethanol in a more efficient way than we are. When you leave 35% of the water in solution with ethanol at the refinery, you reduce the distillation energy needed to make ethanol by 60%. And you also extend the fuel 35% by adding water. Again the Chinese report that hydrogen is formed. That would be hydrogen on demand from hydrous ethanol. Gasoline and butanol can not do what ethanol can do with water.

    Bottom line is that the highest use of ethanol is to blend it with water and not gasoline. That is the future of liquid fuel.

  • Gail Feddern

    Well, that sounds pretty good. But I guess it would require retooling internal combustion engines to some extent. (I’m not saying that’s bad– it could mean more jobs at Detroit automakers, and Lord knows they need that!) But what effect does this stuff have on plastic & rubber auto parts? Also,can’t they make it out of something other than a food source? Because if they use sugarcane or corn or some other food crop to manufacture it, then that’s false economy, and they are not really solving a problem, just creating more.

  • Jeff Baker

    This year, exports of corn increased by 20% after being flat for years. Corn farmers would export more if they could. There is no shortage of corn. Recently, the cost of a bushel of corn doubled, rising along with numerous other commodities being bought and sold by speculators, including rice, wheat, sugar and soybeans. The escalating cost of transportation fuels to ship corn and foods in general was a much bigger factor in food prices than the 5 cents per pound that was added to the cost of the corn itself. Ship a ton of corn from Iowa to China and see what happens to the price. Now the price of corn is back down to where it was a year ago, but did food prices drop? No, because the raw materials in processed foods represent only a small fraction of the huge overhead cost of foods sold in supermarkets.

    Almost all the corn we export is Not for human consumption. It is feed corn. Shipped to foreign countries gaining affluence, like China and India, to produce meat, dairy, and animal products. This year, the value of dry distillers grains, a byproduct of corn ethanol, increased dramatically, as foreign demand increased and exports doubled. High protein distillers grains, produced by ethanol refineries, is also a feed product that goes toward the production of food. Ten to fifteen percent distillers grains added to the feed of dairy cows increases their milk production by 10 lbs per cow per week. It also puts 10% to 12% more meat on livestock, and it makes fish farming more productive.

    We grow all the corn suitable for human consumption that the world can stand, and we could produce much more, if the demand was there. There’s plenty of corn and distillers grains available to send to the needy, if you can afford the shipping cost. The cost of the grain itself is minimal.

    The ethanol industry removes the starch from 25% of the feed corn crop to make ethanol. That’s no great loss in the realm of feeding livestock, because cows don’t digest the starch very well anyway. So the industry is taking low value corn starch and converting it into a high value fuel product. And what we have leftover is the more digestible portion of the corn kernel, as animal feed, in the form of high protein distillers grains. Corn oil is another byproduct of ethanol refineries, extracted into food grade or fuel grade value-added products.

    Some corn ethanol critics make the false assumption that people are starving, because starch is being extracted from 1 out of 4 bushels of Feed Corn to make ethanol. When in reality, the corn ethanol industry makes a superior feed product that produces more meat, dairy, poultry, fish, and pork, in addition to corn oil and a renewable domestic fuel.

  • Rick Lanese

    I agree with Jeff. He knows what he is talking about. Take his advice. Thanks a bunch Rick L.

  • Dov

    The question isn’t whether or not we can produce enough corn this year. The question is if we can produce a long term sustainable economy based on biofuels that require additional resources of land and water, enough to support a growing energy economy.
    Let us assume that the land potential doesn’t deteriorate due to lack of nutrients (which is a big if), and that there is more than enough fresh water to last indefinitely (doubtful as well).

    Is it possible for biofuels to keep up with the growing global demand for fuel?

    Then add in more variables such as formerly mentioned, and add in dependence upon changing weather patterns, and economic competition from the food industry – that land could grow things besides corn you know.

    One last note about fresh water – using up more and more of our fresh water supply means that desalination will inevitably be necessary. That takes ENERGY.

  • new doc

    A new catalyst is being made for a future use of syngas to butanol. This company is now piloting a plant in March to make alcohols of methanol and ethanol from waste biomass. It will cost less and have incentives from the DOE because it is second generation cellulosic biofuel. Chemistry for corn or sugar needs larger cost and smaller returns in butanol. The feedstock is the main problem for making fuel. Food is not a great resource to use for energy compared to garbage and waste biomass.
    Wile the butanol is in the laboratory phase it shows that more research will take what was the waste can be be a resource. Electricity can also be made with syngass and the power is renewable. The next step is to make the CO2 into algae that makes oil and combined with methanol into biodiesel. These are not pipe dreams but real technology for the replacement of food sourced fuel.

  • Ryan

    We don’t need to move completely to biofuels and completely away from fossil fuel sources.

    We basically need 3 things:

    1) More options for energy sources, biofuels being one of many. We need to use what we have now, plus add biofuels, wind, solar, etc. The technology to produce these alternative sources will also improve.

    2) More energy efficient technology. More sources of energy + more efficient use of that energy = the solution. We have the ability to improve both, and the effort will continue as long as humans exist.

    3) A global culture shift towards more social and individual responsibility. This will be the most difficult, but it is not impossible.

  • Peter

    Ethanol = Farm Aid for the 21st century…..

  • just watching

    This is all hat and no cattle.
    When do we stop researching and start doing? Make fuel and then start doing it better.

  • Tyler M.

    Ok, first of all Rick, way to be a sheep. Useless post. Alright, moving on. What I am going to try to address is the uselessness of Ethanol as a biofuel. And to do this I will demonstrate its inferiority to both Butanol and gasoline. The fact that ethanol can be used with water doesn’t matter. We can’t use gas with water, as was proven earlier, so then why do we use it? The answer is many things. Price, Energy Density, ease of production, availability, vapor pressure and many other things determine which fuel, if any, is better. Lets break this down a little bit. Gasoline produced from petroleum is cheaper, is easier to produce, is more available due to the fact that you can ship it through pipes, has a higher energy density than any biofuel, and a suitable vapor pressure for use in internal combustion engines.

    Lets move to Ethanol. This is going to take a while. Ethanol is not easily produced nor is it cheap because you must first grow the crop or organic matter that you are going to retrieve it from, then it must go through four different complex steps to break it down. First from corn to glucose, then glucose to an intermediate chemical, then the intermediate chemical must ferment for a long period of time, then the ABE’s (Acetone, Butanol, Ethanol)are produced. From there you must separate the three chemicals and then go about shipping the stuff, but thats a later argument. Let’s move to energy density. On a molecular level, Gasoline molecules usually range from 6 – 12 carbon atoms in its structure, whereas ethanol has 2. So at best, it has ONE-THIRD of the energy density of gasoline, and i.e. one-third the fuel mileage. On to the vapor pressure. Ethanol’s is a little but higher than gasoline’s and therefore more volatile, and therefore more dangerous. It is also explosive, not combustive, which increases the danger of it especially when it comes to shipping, which is probably the biggest downfall of ethanol, availability. Ethanol is corrosive to metal, which means that it CANNOT be shipped or stored in the existing gasoline infrastructure. In order for an ethanol economy to be implemented nationwide, it must first first have its own, independent method of shipping and storage. Not only that, but major engine modifications must be made in order for a car to run of E100, and in existing cars, E10 will corrode the orings and the cylinder walls, and total the car in as little as five years. Also, the large scale production of ethanol will shift corn use away from that of food, and into the production of fuel, which will exacerbate existing poverty and starvation. Maybe a bit of a paper tiger, but it makes sense.

    Moving to Butanol. The Ease of production is equal to that of Ethanol, because it is produced with the ABE method. The Price is also about the same, but in recent years, David Ramey, has patented a way to combine four steps into one, and in turn decrease price and increase ease of production. Also, with butanol, it has been, and is still being, comeercially produced already. You may find it in such things as industrial solvents, or paint thinners. Never before WWII had we ever heard of ethanol, but butanol production had begun pre WWI. On to the energy density. Again to the molecular level, Butanol has four carbon atoms in its structure, which places it much closer to that of gasoline and twice that of Ethanol. Also, right now, Butanol can be used 100% (B100) in existing engines with NO modifications to the engine. the reason for this is again the energy density, and the low vapor pressure. It has about half of the vapor pressure of gasoline, and that makes it less volatile and more prone to combustion rather than explosion. As for the availability of Butanol, as I said before, it is already being produced worldwide at about 320 billion gallons per year 220 billion of those gallons produced in the US. Butanol can also be used in the existing infrastructure, and just by that alone it beats out ethanol. As for the Agriculture argument, butanol is produced from the same method and will also increase ag.

    So as you can see, Gasoline is the best, which is why we use it and are addicted to it. Ethanol as a replacement is garbage, but Butanol is about 1.3 of the Garbage of Ethanol, and can completely replace gasoline right now, if we can produce it on a wide scale.

    For more information, you can go to, and read stuff from David Ramey, who drove his ’92 buick cross country on B100.

  • Mac-101

    Anyone know what the octane of butanol is?

  • John

    Those talking about combusting water with ethanol misunderstand what’s going on completely. The water is not actually combusting at all. Rather, the water is taking the energy of combustion of the ethanol, and converting the water droplets into steam, which has a major amount of expansion (just 18 grams of water, when fully converted to steam will produce about 22 liters of gas vapor). The use of the energy to make the steam is more efficient than just the expansion of the exploding gas vapors because it converts more of the expended energy (from heat) into useful work (expanded gases) to drive the engine. The result is that you get more power, and better fuel economy.

    During the summer, this might be a good way to extend fuel economy if adopted by auto manufacturers. There are issues with the ignition timing which would have to be addressed, but it might be worthwhile to look at some.

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