Biobutanol — Another Biofuel Breakthrough

Continuing to follow the developments in biofuels is interesting because the things you know from two months ago are supplanted by new developments. There are numerous objections to the way ethanol is being handled in this country — the massive subsidies, the 54% tariff on imported ethanol — that make ethanol itself an objectionable solution. Technology also makes it an objectionable solution — corn-based ethanol is a very weak technology for producing ethanol, and ethanol itself only has about 75% of the energy you can get from gasoline.

Dupont and BP have created a new biofuel, biobutanol, that looks very promising. It provides 95% of the energy of gasoline and is not ethanol. That means that, for the time being, it can be imported without the hideous tariff and could possibly be used in existing cars without modification, or lighter modifications, once the technology has matured. / Companies / Energy Utilities Mining – DuPont, BP claim biofuel breakthrough
The companies will make the fuel in an Associated British Foods factory that was being built to produce ethanol from sugar, with production of 9m gallons of biobutanol expected in 2007.

Whereas ethanol produces only about three-quarters of the energy of conventional petrol when burned, biobutanol could produce as much as 95 per cent.

Conventional engines can cope with fuels that incorporate 5-10 per cent ethanol, but can take much higher levels of biobutanol without modification. But biobutanol is more difficult and expensive to produce than ethanol.

BP and DuPont said they would use existing technology, “but enhanced”, to make biobutanol at first, to get it to market quickly.

Work on more advanced technology would be completed by 2010. Tom Frost, associate director at Numis Securities, said the market for biofuels was looking strong. “It’s clearly a benefit if you can use this without changing engines.” Chad Holliday, chief executive of DuPont, said the fuel would not be competitive with petrol: “We have not been able to make [biobutanol] at a cost and a price point that our customers would use it. We believe we can accomplish that [in the future].”

Right now, biobutanol is not efficient, but it looks promising. We’ve wasted so much money on corn-based ethanol, to little effect, that it seems to be waiting to be made obsolete. That’s what I’m waiting for.

James has an earlier post on using moonshine to power cars.

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Robert Prather
About Robert Prather
Robert Prather contributed over 80 posts to OTB between October 2005 and July 2013. He previously blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished. Follow him on Twitter @RobPrather.


  1. davod says:

    It is my understanding that ethanol production is energy intensive. How much energy is required to produce biobutanol. The McCainites will slap a tariff on anything that competes with mid-west ethanol.

  2. davod,

    I didn’t see how energy intensive it is compared to ethanol. That’s a good question.

    I would hope those a**holes on the Hill let this slip by. It looks good so far and moves aginst it would bode ill for the country. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why members of Congress would want to tie us into an inferior energy solution.

  3. Robert,

    Which state is the first presidential caucus held? How many senators and representatives want to be president (not how many have a good chance, but WANT to be)? What crops are grown in Iowa?

    So you are waiting for us to stop flogging corn based ethanol based on what political theory?

  4. It’s not a political theory, but rather a technological theory, particularly as it relates to corn-based ethanol.

    I would be thrilled if Congress simply left biobutanol and other technologies alone. They will prevail over corn if given a chance.

  5. Besides, whyTF are you so quick to defend welfare for farmers and AMD? This is a tremendous waste of resources, not only in terms of spending, but in terms of delaying superior technologies from coming to market.

  6. Rob says:

    We need a multipronged energy strategy. Biobutanol looks good but we shouldn’t abandon ethanol made from switchgrass. We also need to develop more solar and wind power. We have the technology to be energy independant, we just need to make sure funding goes into a tremendous amount of expansion in these fields instead of toward fighting for someone else’s democracy. No one else stepped in and helped us fight for ours, why are our sons dying for theirs?

  7. I don’t really disagree with most of what you say, only that the government should limit itself to basic research and let the better alternative emerge. No subsidies or trade barriers, however. Even a tax on gasoline would be fine because it doesn’t prejudice us against emerging technologies. It prejudices against gasoline use.

    I would also quibble with your wording: we need energy diversity, not independence, which is unattainable absent a VERY MAJOR breakthrough.