Will Butanol end up in your gas tank?

New research could speed the nascent switch from ethanol to butanol.

Some companies have already converted ethanol plants to make butanol instead ethanol. It’s a fairly expensive process premised – among other potential advantages – on the opportunity of winning bigger profits with a fuel that contains 30 percent more energy than ethanol and can be blended in higher percentages with gasoline.

As it stands with ethanol, producers face the “blend wall,” the limit of 10 percent ethanol in gasoline.

So what’s new? It’s the possibility that instead of modifying ethanol facilities so that they can make butanol, a conversion said to cost around $15 million, it might be possible to use a new family of catalysts to turn ethanol into butanol. Doing that would require less retrofitting.

According to Duncan Wass and fellow researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K., earlier catalysts produced a lot of “unwanted products” along with the butanol. With the new ones, the output from the ethanol is 95 percent butanol.

“These new catalysts are much better than any previously in existence,” Wass said in a statement. “There’s a long way to go before they are commercialized, but we are reporting a fundamental advance in that direction. Quite simply, they are the world’s best catalysts for making the gasoline of the future.”

Standard butanol production isn’t a whole lot different than ethanol production; yeasts drive fermentation of biomass (usually corn), and then distillation takes over.

But this method is fairly dynamic itself.

Last August, MIT researchers backed by the government’s ARPA-E program said they had made progress toward a genetically altered microbe that could use CO2 as its carbon source, offering the possibility that emissions could be turned into fuel. Alternate modifications could turn agricultural or municipal waste into the preferred carbon source, the researchers said.

In addition to the earlier advantages mentioned, butanol is attractive because it can be used in making plastics and other industrial products. And last year we reported on a deal between the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) and the company Albemarle to produce a jet fuel from biobutanol made by Cobalt Technologies.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling