2 Iowa ethanol facilities weigh switch to butanol

Source: DAN PILLER, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A joint venture of DuPont and BP announced Tuesday that two Iowa ethanol plants are considering converting their operations to production of biobutanol, a fuel with higher energy content than ethanol.

Lincolnway Energy of Nevada and Corn LP of Goldfield are reserving the option to switch production. They would join Highwater Ethanol of Minnesota as “early adapters” to butanol, with a target of production for the automobile consumer market by 2014.

“This is just the first step to find out what we need to know about butanol. We’re still a ways from even signing a letter of intent,” said Rick Brehm of Lincolnway Energy.

But Brehm said butanol “addresses some of the criticisms of ethanol,” which include its lower energy level compared with that of gasoline, the inability to move it in pipelines and its tendency to attract water.

Butanol is a flammable alcohol that can be made from either fossil fuels or renewable sources; either corn grain or the stalks, cobs or other parts of the plant can be used.

In the petroleum industry, butanol has been reserved primarily for the solvent and cosmetics markets, which tend to bring higher prices, rather than the motor transportation fuel market.

The conversion won’t be cheap. Paul Beckwith, president of Butamax, the BP-DuPont venture, said the price for new equipment would be about 20 to 30 percent of the original cost of a plant. That would be up to $30 million for a 50 million-gallon facility.

“This clearly is a nontrivial investment and will require support from lenders,” said Beckwith, who works from DuPont’s headquarters in Wilmington, Del.

But the “early adapters” to the proprietary technology developed by BP and DuPont will be able to produce a fuel that has 85 percent of the energy content of petroleum-refined gasoline vs. the 66 to 70 percent level of the current generation of corn-based ethanol.

“It will be a higher-value product and thus more profitable to the producer,” Beckwith said.

Butanol can be blended at 16 percent of the volume of gasoline, as opposed to the current 10 percent for ethanol (or 15 percent when regulatory bugs are worked out). That will enable the product to “create more room” within the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, Beckwith said.

The standard requires that half of the 36 billion targeted gallons of biofuel production in the U.S. come from non-corn sources by 2025.

Corn-fed ethanol accounts for more than 13 billion gallons of production, thus slamming producers against a “blend wall” while they await development of the next generation of biofuels.

DuPont and POET are planning ethanol plants that use cellulosic material, or biomass other than corn grain, at Nevada and Emmetsburg, to be opened by late next year.

Beckwith said Butamax already has approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use butanol, blended at 16 percent, in U.S. cars.

It is still awaiting regulatory rulings on the health impacts of the fuel.