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Monday, November 17, 2008

Butanol Could be a Much Better Gas Replacement Than Ethanol

Regardless of how the debate between corn ethanol and second-generation, non-food ethanol (cellulosic ethanol) pans out, we may be arguing about the wrong thing. “Why’s that?” you might ask. You see, as a source of fuel, ethanol poses several serious problems.

For starters, it corrodes pipes and tubing — meaning that it has to be shipped by truck, and cars have to be specially altered to be able to use it. Secondly, ounce for ounce it has a much lower energy content than gasoline.

In light of these problems with ethanol, the argument maybe shouldn’t be about first generation ethanol versus second generation ethanol, but simply about ethanol versus butanol.

Butanol is much less corrosive than ethanol and has a similar energy content to gasoline. It could be distributed using the same infrastructure used to move gasoline around and drivers would be able to use higher blends of it without altering their cars. Plus, you may not notice a difference in fuel economy when driving a car filled with butanol.

Researchers are pushing to find ways to make butanol cheaper, but right now the technology is still a ways off. Gevo, a small company focused on delivering butanol solutions, currently has a 20,000 gallon per year test butanol facility up and running. It appears that their main focus will be on providing capabilities to other companies to convert their first generation ethanol facilities into butanol facilities.

If butanol could get even a quarter of the political attention that ethanol has, its fortunes would surely change quickly. But, thinking it over, butanol’s relative obscurity as a biofuel may be a blessing in disguise. The massive amount of attention that ethanol has received seems have done more harm than good from both a public opinion and market-bubble-causing perspective.

So, maybe butanol will be the ultimate winner after all.

Source: Biofuels Digest
Image Credit: dodge challenger1’s Flickr photostream under a Creative Commons License.