Friday, April 22, 2011

Northern Michigan To Get World's First Industrial Biobutanol Plant

Via Biofuels Digest: Cobalt, American Process to launch first cellulosic biobutanol plant

This could be big.

Why It Matters

Butanol is the alcohol fuel you've never heard of. Biobutanol is butanol that has been produced with the help of microbes.

We've all heard of ethanol. Butanol is like ethanol in that it is an alcohol fuel and can be used in cars and it is commonly used by industry.

It is unlike ethanol in that in can be used as a straight-up replacement for gasoline with no engine modification; it has a higher energy density than ethanol; and can be shipped in existing gasoline pipelines because unlike ethanol it does not absorb water (ethanol has to be shipped by truck).

This is a bit of good news after the roller coaster rides provided by natural gas and biomass.

The explosion of natural gas leases in northern Michigan dried up as quickly as they appeared (TheTicker). Plus, the geological formation holding the gas (Utica Shale) only produces economical recovery rates through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and this process is being found to have all kinds of faults (yes, that is geology humor) like what is currently happening in Pennsylvania (See Reuters: U.S. natgas well blowout raises safety concerns).

As far as biomass is concerned, TCLP was forced to abandon plans for a biomass burning power plant after community concerns (See IPR: TC L&P Abandons Biomass)

What It Could Mean

The Alpena Biorefinery will initially use waste wood from a particle board plant. But if successful it could mean a need for more cellulose sources in the future. The forests of Michigan perhaps, but even better would be planning ahead. If I ran a power company I'd find fallow land, plant native and quick growing woody plants that can be used as feedstock (e.g., willows) in biomass operations, then see what happens.

In 10-15 years if we're using alagae, wind, and solar to meet our energy needs then lease the purchased land to farmers; if biobutanol is a big deal then use the mature plants as the source for alcohol fuels.

Additional Reading
AP: Companies announce plans for Alpena refinery that converts wood waste to industrial chemical

Ecoseed: American Process and Cobalt Technologies to build world’s first biobutanol refinery

Sustainable Planet: World’s First Cellulosic Biobutanol Refinery to Be Built in Alpena, Michigan

Official site: Alpena Biorefinery