New catalysts to convert ethanol to butanol fuels

By Chris Hanson | April 17, 2013

Researchers from U.K.’s University of Bristol reported the development of new catalysts that are able to convert ethanol to butanol at the national meeting and exposition of the American Chemical Society.

Duncan Wass, professor at the University of Bristol, said some ethanol plants in the Corn Belt have begun the conversion to the production of butanol. However, a $10 million to $15 million price tag in current conversion costs can pose a challenge for other producers. Wass adds that while the butanol market is also less established than ethanol, it is quickly being developed by companies, such as Butamax and Gevo.

Wass and his group said the new catalysts are similar to those used in modern petrochemical technology, potentially allowing existing ethanol producers to avoid high retrofitting costs while  allowing for the production of both ethanol and butanol. Unlike current technology, Wass said the new catalysts are more selective and yield 95 percent butanol out of the total products from each batch in laboratory-scale tests.

“These new catalysts are much better than any previously in existence.” Wass said, “There’s a long way to go before they are commercialized, but we are reporting a fundamental advance in that direction.”

Currently, the technology is still being tested in the lab with scale-up plans to follow.