TR: Why is water a concern with pipelines?
PN: In any fuel system, water gets in pipes. With gasoline, it just settles out of the bottom. Ethanol mixes with water. So you basically introduce water into the fuel mix. If you put aviation fuel down a pipe that starts to have some ethanol in it, then you have the potential of water contamination of the aviation fuel, which could be very bad news.
TR: How is butanol made now, and how do you propose to make it?
PN: The conventional way of making biobutanol is a fermentation process. There is a lot of work going on in various places to improve the efficiency of the process. And our target is to find a way of making butanol at a price that can compete with gasoline. More than that we cannot say.
TR: What feedstocks can you use?
PN: You can make butanol with exactly the same stuff you use to make ethanol. We can make it from sugar, we can make it from corn, we can make it from sugar beets. Any sugar-starch that’s going into the fermentation of ethanol you can [use to] make butanol.
TR: Ethanol today depends heavily on government subsidies. How economical is butanol?
PN: I’m not sure that it needs too much specific help. What I’d ask for more is a level playing field. For example, a transition away from subsidizing biofuels on the basis of volume towards subsidizing on the basis of energy content would represent a level playing field. By subsidizing volume, you’re effectively supporting less-energy-efficient alternatives.
TR: When can we expect to go to a BP station and fill up with some butanol?
PN: This is absolutely in a testing phase, and we’re looking to how we can move it into a pilot [plant] phase. We’ll be dealing with some trial quantities soon.
Before we get to a mass-market environment, to be honest, you have to give it a little bit of time. I would like to think that butanol could be broadly available before ligno-cellulosic ethanol [such as from wood chips and corn stover] is widely available. It’s almost just a function of the pace of engineering and permitting. To open a new ethanol plant today, it’s not going to be open until 2009, 2010. So that should help you range your expectations about the introduction of new technology.
TR: To be clear: are you waiting on biological advances before you can move forward, or are you already at a point where you can go ahead and build plants and start small-scale production?
PN: I think we’re in the world of optimizing biological processes. You don’t want to build a plant if you’re working with a suboptimal process.
TR: So there are no major breakthroughs needed?
PN: Both BP and DuPont are very positive, committed, and optimistic about the prospects of delivering butanol.