Fuel Made from Food

Eric (Eni) Enescu

Staff Writer

Extended Website Version

In the 1950s, major corporations had to decide how they would power the future. With new manufacturing processes and better mining techniques, petro-chemical products became the mainstream fuel source. This lead to a hiatus in renewable energy sources as, back then, petrol became much more profitable. In our world of increasing emission restrictions, in the UK there is a tax law dependent on this, renewable sources are more important than ever.

Many of these biofuels are now reaching a point in development that can now rival petrol production, and we are a bit spoiled for choice. There is bioethanol, biomethanol, biobutanol, natural gas, methane, hydrogen, and so on. Out of all of these, biobutanol is functionally the best option. It is probably the most cost effective, the most versatile and the most eco-friendly biofuel currently in existence.

To start off, biobutanol is an alcohol fuel created by the fermentation of a wide range of plant waste by certain types of microbes, known as clostridium. In comparison to other biofuels, it has a much wider range of sources to ferment. It can be derived from any number of plants, including trash and compost, as opposed to ethanol and methanol that can only be created from corn. Slow and low volume production plague its development in the 60s, but processes are becoming a lot more advanced. In fact, new was of developing this biofuel are making headways, such as a group of scientists from the Princeton University who used a type of light to increase yield from sources like types of yeasts, rather than the standard clostridium bacterium. This means in turn that to amass brute matter to create biobutanol is many times more cost effective and environmentally friendly than other biofuels.

Moving on, Biobutanol is very similar to petrol. In terms of usage and storage, very little needs to be changed, if at all, to accommodate biobutanol rather than petrol. It doesn’t mix with water, as opposed to bioethanol that is rendered useless when mixed. Butanol has a similar energy density similar to petrol, within 10% as said in the U.S. department of energy on alternative fuel data center, and significantly superior to ethanol, allowing for similar fuel economy figures when in use. As opposed to other biofuels, like ethanol and bio-diesel, biobutanol doesn’t corrode engine parts, allowing them to work with modern cars and even planes, according to Fast Company, without any issues regarding function.

To add, biobutanol is actually helping the global emission levels. As biobutanol is derived from plants, atmospheric CO2 is used to form the plant, and only a certain proportion of the CO2 absorbed actually gets recirculated in the atmosphere by combustion. This reduces global levels of CO2 while not actually needing to change how we burn fuel. In addition to this, it isn’t as toxic as other fuels, such as methanol that burns with an invisible flame, and not as volatile as it has a lower Reid pressure, or pressure of vaporization, when compared to ethanol. On top of that, a study from the University of Birmingham found that overall emissions from its combustion was significantly lower than that of standard petrol.

If we look at the economic standpoint, it is actually better than petrol. As it can be made from any form of plant matter, it can be produced virtually anywhere allowing for fuel independence of various communities. This would also lead to fuel security in case of a future fuel crisis as in the seventies or in an eventual situation when crude oil will run out. On top of that, it would be quite cost effective for the consumer. Sources such as Optimol estimate the price being 1-3$ per U.S. gallon, depending on the feedstock source. This is actually a conservative estimate as some companies such as Gevo and Butanext are developing genetically modified strands of clostridium and even E. coli to increase production yield. With all this competition, biobutanol would be much easier on your pocketbook compared to petrol.

As an added caveat, biobutanol can, according to Fast Company, by an alternative source for the production of plastics, as it has a similar chemical nature to petrol. This is made all the more convincing when we consider that petrol is getting more and more scarce, combined with the fact that biobutanol improves atmospheric pollution levels by not releasing sulfur agents as petrol would do.

However, biobutanol has some downsides. It has the small problem of not being able to vaporize properly at lower temperatures, impacting efficiency at these lower temperatures. This is only a minor inconvenience as, like petrol, additives can be added to reduce this phenomenon and the overall injection system can be optimized for this fuel. This is quite a small problem to have considering all the advantages.

In summary, biobutanol is quite a cost effective, environmentally friendly and nearly perfect alternative to petrol that we can all use today. The only question is: When can I put it in my car?


Originally Published in Bandersnatch Vol. 48 Issue 05 on November 7th, 2018