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From Cellulosic Ethanol To Butanol

February 24, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 8

Blending ethanol into gasoline oxygenates the fuel, reduces pollution, and stretches petroleum supplies. But biobutanol appears to many an even more attractive alternative.

Biobutanol’s advantages over ethanol include its higher energy content and its compatibility with existing vehicles and refueling infrastructure. These benefits are driving increased patenting of ways to ramp up the fuel’s production from nonpetroleum sources. One common strategy is to engineer microbes to produce the fuel. But such strategies face a common challenge: The butanol product is often toxic to the microbe.

BP Biofuels recently reported an approach for skirting this problem. In its world patent application (WO 2012004572), the firm describes how various ruthenium phosphine catalysts can convert ethanol to butanol. Selectivity and conversion rates are high, on the order of 20%. The patent shows that it doesn’t matter if the ethanol starting material comes from a petrochemical or biological source. That means the technology could be applied at existing cellulosic ethanol facilities.

Patent Picks is a collaborative effort by C&EN and CAS. This feature reports on trends CAS scientists observe from patents in the CAS databases, which now generate more than 70% of the new substances appearing in the literature.


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