Quick EPA approval sought for butanol use in fuel supply

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, June 17, 2013

Support from U.S. EPA is “absolutely” essential to building up the market for isobutanol, a promising renewable fuel, the chief executive of a joint venture between BP PLC and DuPont Co. said this week.

Paul Beckwith, CEO of Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC, this week urged EPA to move quickly on approving an application to allow isobutanol into the country’s motor fuel supply at levels up to 16 percent. The agency is currently assessing the fuel’s health and environmental impacts.


In the second half of this year, Butamax aims to begin retrofitting a Midwestern ethanol plant to produce 50 million gallons of isobutanol annually. The approval of the fuel is necessary before the company begins the second phase of construction next year, Beckwith said.


“We absolutely have to have it in place before we conduct the second phase because it is essential to us being able to sell the product in the market in the way we want to sell it,” Beckwith said.


Isobutanol, also known as biobutanol, is produced through a similar fermentation process as ethanol but has several properties, including a higher energy content, that make it attractive to refiners compared to ethanol. Butamax’s technology involves a new yeast technology that, when applied to feedstocks such as corn and agricultural residues, makes butanol instead of ethanol.


Butamax is one of two companies working to market butanol on a commercial scale. The other, Gevo Inc., retrofitted an ethanol plant in Minnesota to produce isobutanol but last year switched it back to ethanol production, citing economic reasons.


The companies have so far filed 17 lawsuits against each other for patent infringements; more than a dozen are left to be decided by the courts over the next few years. Breaking through the commercial barrier could yield major profit for the companies, given refiners’ interest in blending the fuel into petroleum-based gasoline.


Before that happens, though, EPA must approve the fuel for use in vehicles.


The agency is considering a petition from Butamax to register butanol for use in vehicles at the 16 percent level, a process that involves a look at the health and environmental effects of the fuel. EPA must complete the reviews before allowing any new fuel molecules into the marketplace; EPA completed a similar review last year for gasoline containing up to 15 percent ethanol.


“The EPA does have a rigorous process to make sure that any new fuel product is properly assessed before it’s introduced to the market. And obviously, we completely support that,” Beckwith said. “It’s not good for anyone if a new product comes into the market and then causes unexpected problems.”

Butamax has provided the agency with data on the fuel, and now it’s a matter of waiting.

“We’ve done all the work, we think, that will allow the EPA to make a favorable decision,” Beckwith said, “but we do need that process to be completed.”

Butamax has eight ethanol companies in an “early adopters” group that have expressed interest in retrofitting facilities for isobutanol production. In all, the facilities would have a capacity of 900 million gallons.

EPA earlier this year proposed allowing isobutanol to qualify for the renewable fuel standard’s advanced biofuel category and to allow the co-mingling of butanol gasoline with ethanol gasoline.

Beckwith said the action was an important step for introducing the fuel in the marketplace.

“You’re not going to have supply chains or locations which are completely dedicated to one product, so being able to co-mingle the fuels is very important,” Beckwith said.

The agency is operating in the face of increasing pressure over its renewable fuels policies from refining and livestock interests. Butamax has been visiting congressional offices to tout the benefits of isobutanol and sees the fuel as a means of getting around most of the complaints raised in recent months with ethanol.

Mark Buse, corporate communications director for Butamax, said that the company wasn’t complaining about EPA’s pace in registering the fuel but that “the more quickly they can act, the better,” given the pressure in Congress.

“When we get all of our approvals from the agency, it enables us to bring this to the marketplace faster,” Buse said, “which will allow the Hill to better understand the advantages that butanol brings to the market.”