Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Biomass to Chemicals Too Valuable to Burn?

Butanol is one form of bio-chemical that is currently too valuable to burn. It cannot compete with gasoline at the pump, but bio-butanol will easily compete with petro-butanol in the chemicals market. Brian Westenhaus describes how new organisms for fermenting butanol from biomass are opening the door to a bio-butanol boom in the chemicals trade.
Currently butanol is much more costly than gasoline. With attributes like clean burning, high energy density, and good prospects for bio sources, bio butanol could well find a market to displace or substitute for gasoline. There remain several unanswered problems, like the low concentration of butanol poisoning microorganisms, separation issues and other process matters.

In any case, what the paper makes clear is that the possible range of biomass to butanol has grown and the organism can produce to higher concentrations – both worthwhile results. Butanol is in fairness dozens of centuries behind ethanol and methanol in its development. The small carbon molecules are easier to make and do offer more hydrogen available if the market goes to fuel cells.

But for internal combustion, chemistry and industry butanol is a top target, the current best use if it can be made to market scales in the tens of millions of gallons per year. _NewEnergyandFuel
More on butanol here.

In Quebec, Enerkem is preparing to produce bio-ethanol and bio-methanol from cellulosic feedstocks at its new gasification plus catalysis plant. Gasification plants can also easily feed more advanced catalytic synthesis processes to produce gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and other chemicals. Such biofuel plants can get an early start producing ethanol, then convert to more sophisticated processes as they gain experience.

One place that more sophisticated catalysts for thermochemical conversion of biamoss are being developed, is at the Oklahoma University Chemical Engineering Dept. OU chemical engineers are working to make the pyrolysis oil to biofuel conversion more economical. Pyrolysis to biofuels cannot compete with current prices for petroleum, but prices will certainly rise within the next 5 to 10 years. And perhaps engineers can develop chemicals from pyrolysis oils that are more valuable than fuel -- too valuable to burn. These products may finance production while the cheaper petroleum is being used up.

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Blogger Syn Diesel said...

Howdy Al.

Bio-butanol-booster certainly do gloss over the market price (and non-fuel utility) of our 4-c friend, yet small-scale integrated production of fuel butanol is already feasible using localized waste streams.

The value comes from the low-opportunity cost of burning the chemical, unless a better local market for solvents can be found.

Using glycerol from standard ethanol production (2-3% accumulation in spent mash) plus the non-fermentable fraction c-5 sugars from integrated cellulosic processes such as paper making (another example of biomass to valuable to burn - we only "burn" the left-overs, not the cream of the biomass crop so to speak) and lumber sawdust, we can turn near-zero value wastes into butanol that doesn't need to compete with standard pricing.

Essentially, even if you have no high-priced market for solvents, it will still make sense to use the ABE fermentation process to make use of local resources (which you bought and paid for already, like a bird-in-the-had) which can not be used by alternative processes like c-6 ethanol yeast (glycerol and c-5 sugars) or fiber materials (amorphous c-6 cellulose and soluble c-5 hemicellulose) which can only use the crystalline lignocellulose fraction (the "cream" skimmed off the top of the integrated resource process).

One great use of butanol is making biolubricants. The extra 2 carbons add lenght and volume to fatty acid esters to create great engine oils. The same lengthening also enhances the "kink" of the fatty acid ester chain enhancing the lubricity and winterization properties of biodiesel. It's also a great additive alone, to create biodiesohol fuel mix.

Safely attaching butanol to a biodiesel molecule also helps with the toxicity problem of distributed production and use.

Left unsaid by many proponents of alternatives to ethanol (I'm a big fan of the ethanol molecule btw) is the relative toxicity of methanol and butanol, although both are a step up from BTX fuel additives.

As a fan of integrated farm + factory production of alcohol, I prefer the use of a process that produces an edible co-product and that won't kill employees with a small vapor leak, which is what ethanol provides. So, standard yeast ethanol comes first as the topping cycle, while the more toxic (yet still very usefull) butanol cleans-up the first process non-usable wastes as a bottoming cycle, creating a combined cycle process.

Hooowy, hows that as a first post?

8:44 PM  
Blogger Syn Diesel said...

Btw, this guy is leading the way for butanol tech:

Sammy Pierce

Here's one of his patents (if you like reading patents):

Al Fin, it's clear you're a libertarian. Ayn Rand would describe the work of people like Dr. Pierce as being Heroic. I'd agree. "I Love This Game" as the saying goes.

9:00 PM  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for the information, SD. I'll take a look at Dr. Pierce's ideas and see what I think.

9:21 PM  

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