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BP And DuPont Plan 'Biobutanol'

Firms say they are close to producing a biofuel with advantages over ethanol

by Glenn Hess
June 26, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 26

Credit: DuPont photo
DuPont scientist Max Li develops new biofuels in his fermentation lab at DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Del.
Credit: DuPont photo
DuPont scientist Max Li develops new biofuels in his fermentation lab at DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Del.

BP, Europe's biggest oil company, is joining forces with chemical giant DuPont to develop, produce, and market a new generation of biofuels for the renewable fuels sector.

The companies plan to bring their first product, 1-butanol—which they call biobutanol—to market in the U.K. in 2007 as a gasoline component. BP and DuPont are working with British Sugar to convert the U.K.'s first ethanol fermentation facility, which uses sugar beets, to produce 9 million gal of butanol annually.

"We are announcing a partnership with BP where we will use our science and technology and their marketing expertise to quickly get biobutanol to market," says DuPont CEO Charles O. Holliday Jr. "DuPont firmly believes that biology will help us reduce our global reliance on fossil fuels."

According to Holliday, fermentation-derived butanol can be competitive without subsidies when oil prices are in the range of $30 to $40 per barrel. BP CEO John Browne adds that a renewable fuel will help in his company's effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

DuPont says 1-butanol has several advantages over ethanol, including low vapor pressure and tolerance to water contamination in gasoline. Ethanol attracts water molecules and tends to corrode normal distribution pipelines. Consequently, it must be transported by truck, rail, or barge in relatively small amounts to storage terminals, where it is blended with gasoline.

Another advantage of butanol, according to company officials, is that it can be blended into gasoline at higher concentrations than ethanol without having to retrofit vehicles. It also offers better fuel economy than gasoline-ethanol blends.

Dean Oestreich, president of DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International, says butanol is produced using a fermentation process very similar to that of ethanol. "What we've done here is found a way, through use of our science, to make the process more efficient and economically viable," he says.

As with ethanol, a number of agricultural commodities can be used to produce butanol. "We can make biobutanol from corn grain, wheat, sugar beets, sugarcane, or sorghum, and in the future we look toward being able to use cellulose-based crops as well, such as corn stalks or switchgrass," Oestreich says.

For the next phase of the venture, DuPont scientists are developing a genetically engineered microbe expected to significantly boost the conversion of agricultural feedstock into fuel. DuPont hopes to have the "Gen 2" biocatalyst ready by 2010, says Thomas M. Connelly Jr., chief science and technology officer. "We believe the opportune time to introduce this technology into the U.S. will be when our Gen 2 organism is available," he adds.

Chevron is also increasing its commitment to alternative fuels. Last week, the oil major said it would work with Georgia Tech, spending up to $12 million over five years on R&D to turn cellulosic biofuels and hydrogen into viable transportation fuels. Chevron says one goal is to find economical processes for making biofuels from agricultural waste instead of corn and other food crops.



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