BP-DuPont venture eyes 2016 isobutanol production

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 22, 2014

A joint BP PLC-DuPont Co. venture has launched the first stage of a project to retool a corn ethanol plant to produce a new alternative fuel.

The joint venture, Butamax, began running a separation technology at the ethanol plant in Lamberton, Minn., that will make it easier to produce isobutanol. The plant will use a fermentation process similar to that used by ethanol producers, but its new product will have a higher energy content and not be as corrosive as ethanol.

Butamax CEO Paul Beckwith said in an interview he expects the company to begin producing isobutanol in 2016, given the successful launch of the separation technology.

“It’s running quickly and efficiently,” Beckwith said. “We have been approached by a number of companies that are interested in installing this technology. We’re considering further potential installations, but right now we are really putting the system through its paces to fully determine what it’s capable of.”

Ethanol critics — including the boating industry — have pinned their hopes on isobutanol. Because it contains less oxygen than ethanol, isobutanol can be used in higher volumes without worries about corrosion. Ten percent ethanol is roughly equivalent to 16.1 percent isobutanol.

This is the first isobutanol retrofit for Butamax, a company formed in 2003 to search for petroleum substitutes. The company began the retrofit in October of last year.

Only one other company, Gevo Inc., is also attempting to convert ethanol plants to isobutanol production; Gevo opened up its first plant in 2012 but was forced to revert to ethanol production for a while because of a bug in the system.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and local government officials attended the launch of Butamax’s technology yesterday at the Highwater Ethanol plant in Lamberton, according to Beckwith.

Butamax’s separation technology takes in the ethanol plant’s corn, separates out corn oil that can be sold as a byproduct and preps the remaining corn for fermentation into isobutanol.

EPA has approved corn-based isobutanol to be used for credit in the renewable fuel standard, but the company still needs certain approvals from the agency and from states to be able to sell butanol for use in cars.