Racers running alcohol-fueled engines should perk up when they hear the word biobutanol. Touted as an environmentally friendly advanced biofuel, biobutanol gained recent exposure when an American research and development company specializing in the fuel was jointly bought by chemical giants DuPont and BP, both of which have far-reaching global motorsports programs.
But what exactly is it? Biobutanol is butanol produced from biomass feedstocks such as corn, sorghum, sugarcane, and so on. Butanol is a four-carbon alcohol (butyl alcohol). Like ethanol and its close cousin methanol, biobutanol is a liquid alcohol fuel. Unlike ethanol and methanol, the energy content of biobutanol is only 10 to 20 percent lower than that of gasoline rather than almost 40 percent as in the aforementioned alcohol fuels.
The Big Picture The use of biobutanol as a fuel and/or fuel additive provides greater options for sustainable renewable transportation fuels, reduces dependence on imported oil, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, and expands markets for agricultural products and byproducts.
A much more forgiving alcohol fuel than traditional ones, biobutanol can be blended into standard grade gasoline or gasoline containing ethanol, is compatible with existing vehicle technology and has the potential to be incorporated into the existing fuel supply infrastructure.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already approved biobutanol as an oxygenate additive for gasoline in concentrations up to 11.5 percent by volume in place of ethanol. In fact, it can be used in higher blend concentrations than ethanol without requiring special modifications to vehicles, blending facilities, storage tanks, or retail station pumps. Unlike existing biofuels, it is also potentially suitable for transport in pipelines. Consequently, biobutanol could be introduced into gasoline quickly and avoid the need for additional large-scale supply infrastructure. Meaning it will be more readily available to consumers.
Why would we as short trackers care? In a nutshell early indications are that an internal combustion engine can run on high concentrations of biobutanol, up to 100 percent with little to no modifications to the motor. Plus, it's far less corrosive than typical alcohol fuels and the energy content is closer to that of gasoline, which means you need to burn less of it to generate the same BTU as compared to ethanol/methanol.
In keeping with this issue's theme, let's say you race a Midget on methanol. If you could use biobutanol in place of the methanol, you would burn less fuel since biobutanol's energy content is higher than methanol and you would (theoretically) have to do less post-race teardown maintenance on the motor since it's less corrosive than methanol. Assuming that the retail cost per gallon would be similar, you would save money by running your midget on biobutanol over methanol.
So where do you get it? While biobutanol isn't yet available at the local 7/11 or even at your favorite racing fuel distributor, it should soon be popping its head up in some different places across the land. As DuPont and BP continue their development of the fuel, Oregon-based Diesel Brewing recently launched an initiative to manufacture cellulosic biobutanol from biomass and dairy farm manure. That's right folks, fuel from cow poop!
Diesel Brewing's process gasifies wood wastes, agricultural residues, and manure into a syngas that is cleaned and fed into a catalytic reactor and purification system to generate a variety of alcohols containing butanol, ethanol, and methanol-each one biobased and environmentally friendly.
Carbon Footprint & Other Benefits Don't go calling us tree-huggers just yet, but the benefits of moving to a fuel like biobutanol goes beyond just the time and money savings mentioned above. Since the production of biobutanol can utilize a variety of conventional feedstocks such as sugar cane, sugar beet, corn, wheat, cassava, and sorghum as the base ingredient, farmers benefit by having an additional sales outlet for their crops. Plus, biobutanol's ability to be processed from agricultural byproducts means that waste can be converted into fuel.
Outside of the benefits to American farming, DuPont and BP are jointly analyzing biobutanol's emissions performance using the Argonne National Laboratory's Green House Gas Well-to-Wheel/Life Cycle Analysis Program. The early indications are that biobutanol delivers emission reductions that are at least as good as ethanol when using the same base feedstock.
The Future Don't think for a minute that this is all some pipe dream coming out some university's big ivory tower. Although 100 percent biobutanol as a racing fuel is still a ways off, a Dyson Racing Mazda-powered Lola LMP2 American LeMans Series Coupe successfully ran a blend of ethanol and biobutanol at this year's Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.
Could biobutanol be the next methanol? Less corrosive, higher energy content, renewable, and it can be made from agricultural waste . . . why not?