During this age of a world on the verge of energy crisis, rising fuel prices and oil wars, any breakthrough in fuel and energy sources is a welcome breath of fresh air. Alongside biodiesel, biobutanol may be the holy grail in alternative fuel systems. What is biobutanol and why does it have the potential to revolutionize the alternative fuel industry? Read on to find out.
Biobutanol, like ethanol, is an alcohol. The difference between butanol and ethanol is that ethanol has 2 carbons in its backbone while butanol has 4 carbons. Butanol that originates from biomass, or organic matter is referred to as biobutanol as opposed to petrobutanol which originates from petroleum. The reason biobutanol is hailed to have tremendous potential in helping end our world energy crisis is the fact that certain bacteria, particularly strains of clostridium have the unique ability to digest all types of organic matter into a mixture of acetone, butanol, and ethanol. More recently through a patented process developed at Ohio State University butanol has been synthesized in larger amounts more efficiently than previously thought possible through the utilization of a strain of clostridium bacteria known as clostridium tyrobutyricum. The process involved in the production of butanol from biomass is quite similar to that of ethanol, essentially consisting of bacteria or other micro-organisms breaking down a solution of sugar, starch, lignin, or fiber into a mixture of chemicals including butanol. The butanol, being only slightly soluble in water is then separated from the solution either by an adsorbent or through distillation.
So why is butanol particularly useful? Butanol has an energy density closer to gasoline than the other additive which is commonly used today; namely ethanol. Other than its energy density, it mimics gasoline in its burning properties when utilized in a gasoline motor. Along with these exciting attributes is the fact that in more than one test on older vehicles, butanol was safe to use at 100% concentration. The engines of the cars which butanol was tested on were not modified in any way. This means the butanol can theoretically be used as a direct substitute for gasoline, and even in a mix. Butanol also is not very hygroscopic so it does not require the different handling that ethanol requires due to it water loving properties. If this all wasn’t enough, butanol also works at a wider range of temperatures than ethanol, and has excellent cold start properties. This means that a gasoline engine run on butanol on a cold winter morning will not have any problems starting. In addition to this, butanol can be produced cheaper than fossil fuels, reduces vehicular emissions, and does not attack the materials commonly used in internal combustion engines.
Biobutanol may be the most realistic replacement for gasoline the search for alternative fuels has produced as of yet. When biobutanol is produced from organic substance, it has a neutral CO2 balance. This means that the net amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the consumption of butanol is zero. This is possible because of the fact that the plants which are used to make butanol themselves absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. This may be the most important consideration in replacing gasoline with butanol because of the detrimental effects this centuries consumption of fossil fuels has had on our environment. Which the phasing out of fossil fuels and the phasing in of biomass based fuels like biodiesel, biobutanol, and ethanol we can take the proper steps toward a healthier, safer future for our offspring. If an effective means to efficiently convert biomass into biobutanol can be developed in the next decade, there should be nothing between the world and the utilization of this promising new fuel.
Biobutanol may not be economically viable as of yet due to the relatively inefficient manufacturing process, but with time and dedicated research this could change. The fact that our present day vehicles can run directly on butanol is enough to make research into this fuel a must. As our understanding of synthesizing biofuels increases, so will our ability to paint a brighter future for ourselves as a race. Biobutanol may be the gasoline of tomorrow.