Forget about converting food to fuel. There may be better options behind the bar, where distilled spirits like whiskey and vodka hold promise as innovative energy solutions. That's the intriguing concept behind research on the use of select alcoholic beverages to produce biobased butanol fuel, or biobutanol.
Biobutanol is a next-generation biofuel that has higher energy content and a higher octane rating than ethanol, so vehicles get better fuel mileage. Proponents describe it as safe to use in concentrations of up to 100%, with little or no vehicle modification.
They say it competes favorably with $80 a barrel crude oil and, unlike ethanol, creates little or no impact on food supplies. Corn is used to make most ethanol in the US, and corn prices are climbing, at least in part because more of the grain is being used for fuel. (See Rising Corn Costs Could Pop Ethanol Bubble.)
Late last summer, researchers at Edinburgh Napier University announced they'd found a way to produce biobutanol from the best known of Scotland's manufactured exports...Scotch whiskey. A month later, an entrepreneur in the UK stepped forward with a similar plan to make biobutanol with vodka as the base.
Aficionados of Scotch and vodka may view pouring premium spirits in gas tanks as more distressing than converting food to fuel. But there's really no reason for concern: Both plans create fuel from by-products of the distillation process.
Researchers at Edinburgh Napier found a way to create biobutanol from the two main byproducts of the whisky production process -- pot ale, the run-off from the copper stills, and draff, the spent grains. The team relied on a $400,000 grant from Scottish Enterprise's Proof of Concept program, which supports the pre-commercialization of technologies in Scottish universities and research institutes. They used waste from Diageo's Glenkinchie Distillery in East Lothian, Scotland.
Professor Martin Tangney, director of the university's Biofuel Research Centre, said making biobutanol from waste is "a more environmentally sustainable option" than making ethanol from grain. Tangney expects biobutanol will be sold in service stations "in years rather than decades." The university has already patented its process and set up a limited company to leverage the commercial possibilities of the product.
The whiskey-based biofuel is already facing potential competition. Just after the announcement from Scotland, the founder of a premium vodka distillery in England said he plans to use potatoes to make high-grade vehicle fuel. "We have known for a long time that potato starch is an excellent source of bio fuel, but this new scheme will tap the resources left behind in distillery waste," explained William Chase, founder of Chase Vodka. His plan uses pot ale.
Meanwhile, other companies are looking into using waste for fuel. Canada's McCain Foods Ltd. is reported to be exploring the use of potato waste as a source of biofuel; and Pittsburgh-based food producer H.J. Heinz Co. (NYSE: HNZ), is researching uses for potato biofuel at a facility in Oregon.
Last week, American Process Inc. announced plans to use a process from Cobalt Technologies to convert sugars from non-food feedstock, such as forest waste and mill residues, into biobutanol at a biorefinery it is constructing in Alpena, Mich. The facility is projected to produce 470,000 gallons of biobutanol annually.
Other firms are investigating alternate ways to produce biobutanol, including Canada's W2 Energy Inc. (OTC: WTWO). The firm, which develops renewable energy technologies and applies it to new-generation power systems, announced in February that it was beginning construction on a biobutanol reactor. The company plans to use bacteria to grow a mixture of 60% biobutanol, 30% acetone, and 10% ethanol.
"Biobutanol may become one of the transportation fuels of the future, and it already has a robust worldwide market for a variety of industrial uses," says Mike McLaren, president and CEO of W2 Energy. "Making biobutanol with our existing technology is a recipe for success."
But that may not be the case for every company interested in making it. Earlier this year, Butamax Advanced Biofuels, a Delaware-based joint venture between BP and DuPont formed in 2009 to develop biobutanol, sued a competitor for patent infringement. Butamax went after Gevo, an Englewood, Col., advanced biofuels company, for infringement of US Patent No. 7,851,188. The patent involves Butamax's biobutanol production technology and its use of recombinant microbial host cells to produce the biofuel.
Eric Lane, a patent attorney at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps in San Diego, called the lawsuit a sign of things to come on the Green Patent Blog, explaining, "As far as I know, this is the first instance of biofuel patent litigation involving a major oil company. With the oil majors increasingly involved in biofuels startups via research funding, buyouts, and JVs like Butamax, it won't be the last."