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Ethanol-To-Butanol Conversion A Plus

ACS Meeting News: Catalytic process to upgrade ethanol to butanol provides a better biofuel option for gasoline

by Stephen K. Ritter
April 15, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 15

This week’s selections are from the ACS national meeting, which took place on April 7–11 in New Orleans.

Ethanol derived from corn and sugarcane has been a blessing as an additive to transportation fuels, helping to limit pollution and stretch petroleum supplies. One drawback, however, is that the biofuel reduces the energy content of gasoline, resulting in fewer miles driven per gallon. A solution offered by Duncan F. Wass and his research team at the University of Bristol, in England, is a new family of ruthenium catalysts that readily convert ethanol to butanol. Butanol, with two additional carbons, has about 30% higher energy content than ethanol, Wass explained. He noted that efforts are under way to retrofit some ethanol facilities for butanol production. But with his group’s new catalysts, ethanol facilities wouldn’t need to be altered—the ethanol produced in the facilities could simply be upgraded to butanol in an additional condensation reaction step. The ruthenium catalysts (one shown) are very efficient, he added, producing butanol with 95% selectivity and ethanol conversion of better than 40%. The ethanol-to-butanol catalytic process is complementary to the fermentation of sugars directly into butanol using engineered microbes, which is being developed by other scientists, Wass noted. The Bristol catalytic process has been patented, and Wass is working with scientists at BP Biofuels to develop the technology.


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