Alternative fuels such as ethanol could help reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and decrease oil imports, but so far these biofuels only make up a small fraction of fuel use. One of the biggest challenges to ramping up ethanol use is distributing it. That’s because ethanol can’t be transported in the same pipelines used to distribute gasoline. What’s more, ethanol delivers far less energy than gasoline does on a gallon-for-gallon basis.
Philip New, president of BP Biofuels, a recently created company within the giant British oil producer, thinks it has a solution: butanol. While butanol, like ethanol, can be made from corn starch or sugar beets, its properties are a lot more like gasoline than like ethanol. That means it can be shipped in existing gasoline pipelines. And it contains more energy than ethanol does, which will improve mileage per gallon.
Last month BP announced that it will be working with the University of California, Berkeley, on a $500 million, 10-year program, part of which will be devoted to research on improving biofuels such as butanol. And last year BP announced a partnership with DuPont to develop new technology for making butanol. DuPont will provide expertise in biotechnology. Technology Review spoke with New about the company’s plans at a recent energy conference at MIT.
Technology Review: Why is BP interested in biofuels, which would seemingly be a direct competitor to your main business?
Philip New: It is possible–if the world now is really serious about climate change, and if people continue to be concerned about energy security–that given the breakthroughs in technology that now seem plausible, biofuels could represent a significant amount of the transport fuel mix in the future.
I think you have a choice. Either you can try to deny it and resist it and hold it back, or you can embrace it and welcome it and make it a part of your business. And clearly BP has chosen to do the latter.
TR: BP is focusing on a relatively obscure fuel: butanol. Why focus on butanol rather than on ethanol?
PN: Ethanol is a good start. But ethanol was not designed to be a fuel. No one sat down and said, “Let’s create a biomolecule that will operate in engines.” What happened was, people said ethanol can work in engines. As a lot of people are becoming aware, it’s good, but it has some drawbacks. Butanol is, we think, an innovation that overcomes many of the drawbacks.
You shouldn’t view butanol as being a competitor to ethanol. An ethanol plant can evolve into a butanol plant. And you can mix ethanol and butanol together, and it can actually help you use more ethanol.
TR: So how is butanol better?
PN: The key way is higher energy density. Whereas ethanol is around about two-thirds the energy density [of gasoline], with butanol we’re in the high eighties [in terms of percent].
It’s less volatile [than ethanol]. It isn’t as corrosive, so we don’t have issues with it at higher concentrations beginning to eat at aluminum or polymer components in fuel systems and dispensing systems. And it’s not as hydroscopic–it doesn’t pick up water, which is what ethanol can do if you put it in relatively low concentrations. So we can put it through pipelines.