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Corn+Soybean Digest

Biobutanol Basics

A new biofuel developed by DuPont and British Petroleum (BP) may create a new market for corn grain — and potentially corn stalks as well.

“We haven't made such estimates yet, but we're confident about the potential new market for corn farmers,” says Russ Sanders, director of marketing for quality traits with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., Des Moines, IA. Pioneer is a subsidiary of Wilmington, DE-based DuPont.

Biobutanol will launch in the U.K. next year. The country's first ethanol fermentation facility will be converted to produce biobutanol, DuPont says. A feasibility study in conjunction with British Sugar, which owns the plant, is underway to explore constructing larger facilities in the U.K.

Sanders says that while DuPont and BP “intend to deliver biobutanol to every market and region in the world,” it's too early to say what plans may be to introduce biobutanol in the U.S., “although we would like to do that as soon as possible.”

Biobutanol, which is a four-carbon alcohol, offers several advantages over ethanol, which is a two-carbon alcohol, Sanders says. For example, biobutanol has lower vapor pressure, or the tendency to evaporate, and has tolerance to water contamination in gasoline blends.

“Vapor pressure has been a challenge for ethanol in the past,” he says, noting that this is one of the reasons for seasonal blends of ethanol. But because biobutanol has a lower vapor pressure, it will not require seasonal blends, Sanders says. Reducing vapor pressure with biobutanol will also enhance the performance of ethanol blends in gasoline.

In addition, biobutanol can be transported via existing gasoline pipelines, while ethanol has to be shipped on trucks, by barge or by rail because ethanol tends to absorb water. Sanders adds that biobutanol can be blended at higher concentrations than ethanol without requiring vehicle modifications, and boosts fuel efficiency.

Because the production of biobutanol is similar to that of ethanol and uses similar feed-stocks, existing ethanol capacity can be retrofitted to produce biobutanol, Sanders says. “We can make biobutanol from corn grain, wheat, sugar beets, sugarcane, sorghum, and in the future, cellulose-based crops as well, such as corn stalks or switchgrass,” says Pioneer President Dean Oestreich.

But will biobutanol compete with and possibly replace ethanol? Pioneer officials say they view biobutanol as a complimentary technology, which can actually enhance the properties of ethanol-blended fuels.

“We believe that in order to meet the global demand for renewable energy, the market will need to expand beyond the existing biofuels technology,” says Oestreich. He adds that “biobutanol will enhance the market for existing fuels, including ethanol. This is a win-win all the way through the system for bio-renewables, including ethanol.”

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