Biobutanol: A renewable fuel for the future

Here’s why researchers will be researching options for biobutanol as a new fuel source.

The benefits of biobutanol are similar to the benefits of ethanol. It can be produced domestically from a variety of homegrown feedstocks while creating U.S. jobs. Compared to gasoline, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced because plants capture carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis and are then released back into the atmosphere when biobutanol is burned. When you burn gasoline, you are putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that originated from crude oil that has been stored underground for millions of years.

The latest round of grants from the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) require that researchers focus on “drop in” fuels like biobutanol. A drop in fuel is one that can be used in the current fuel infrastructure and burned in vehicles without making any modifications to the engine system.

According to Michigan State University Extension, there are a number of things that make biobutanol a potential biofuel for the future:

  • Biobutanol is less corrosive than ethanol and can be burned without modifying vehicle engines.
  • Its energy density is only 10 to 20 percent lower than gasoline’s.
  • It is compatible with the current gasoline distribution infrastructure and would not require new or modified pipelines, blending facilities, storage tanks or retail station pumps.
  • It is compatible with ethanol blending and can improve the blending of ethanol with gasoline.
  • It can be produced using existing ethanol production facilities with relatively minor modifications.

While biobutanol has great potential as a renewable transportation fuel, modern energy policy and research has focused on ethanol. Future investments to quantify engine performance, conversion efficiency, greenhouse gas balance and an evaluation of feedstock potential is necessary. Researchers at Michigan State University are working on these topics and hope to develop a network of feedstock production facilities that feed a larger biorefinery. Grant programs like the USDA AFRI Bioenergy grant program are helping to make this possible.

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