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Butamax to establish U.S. isobutyl alcohol plant

The company hopes to entice ethanol makers to switch to the higher-molecular-weight alcohol

by Alexander H. Tullo
April 4, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 15

A photograph of the exterior of an ethanol plant in Scandia, Kansas.
Credit: Butamax
Butamax intends to convert part of an ethanol plant it purchased in Scandia, Kan., to isobutyl alcohol production.

Seeking a springboard to commercialize its fermentation route to isobutyl alcohol, Butamax Advanced Biofuels has purchased Nesika Energy, which operates a corn-based ethanol plant in Scandia, Kan. Butamax, a joint venture between DuPont and BP, plans to convert part of the facility to make isobutyl alcohol.

The company hopes to have isobutyl alcohol production in place by 2019. It won’t say what the plant’s capacity will be until its gets further along in the engineering process.

Isobutyl alcohol is considered an attractive alternative to ethanol as a gasoline component. It has a higher energy density and is less sensitive to moisture than ethanol. Isobutyl alcohol is also used as a solvent and chemical intermediate.

Butamax opened a demonstration plant in Hull, England, at a cost of $50 million in 2010. Four years later, it installed corn processing equipment at Highwater Ethanol’s plant in Lamberton, Minn., but didn’t end up making isobutyl alcohol.

Butamax aims to license its technology to ethanol makers seeking to switch to a more profitable product. The partnership estimates that 200 corn ethanol plants in the U.S. alone can be converted to isobutyl alcohol.

A patent infringement suit between Butamax and Gevo, which has its own fermentation process for making isobutyl alcohol, slowed progress for both companies. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 2015 Gevo won a favorable ruling. Later that year, the two firms agreed to cross license technology and end legal proceedings.

In 2010, Gevo purchased an ethanol plant in Luverne, Minn., with the intent of converting it to isobutyl alcohol production, but the company has struggled to make the switch. Gevo produced just 1.7 million L of isobutyl alcohol last year compared to 54 million L of ethanol.

James Evangelow, head of the consulting firm Chemical Strategies, says the prospects for isobutyl alcohol aren’t as bright today as they were in the late 2000s when Butamax and Gevo were founded. “You are dealing with an environment where oil is half the price it was when they first thought about this,” he says.

Energy security is no longer the driver it once was for companies developing biobased fuels, Evangelow notes. And in chemical markets, biobased isobutyl alcohol has to compete with the same molecule made from relatively inexpensive propylene.



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