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No hiccups in the introduction of biofuels

The race is on to produce butanol

arious developments are being made in the biofuel industry with companies partnering to further the development, while a firm in the UK is pioneering the production of biofuel from whisky by-products.

The race is on to produce butanol and its derivatives that are key intermediates in the production of paints, coatings, adhesives and inks, a US$$85 billion global market while butyl acrylates are also used in the US$700 billion global plastics and polymers market. In the longer term, it is expected that butanol will be a "drop in" biofuel to directly replace petroleum; blended with diesel as well as other biofuels, such as biodiesel, ethanol and isobutanol. Unlike other biofuels, biobutanol can be used as a direct replacement for petrol, or as a blend, without the need for engine modification.

The blend stock opportunity for butanol exceeds US$80 billion/year. Butanol also has the potential to be upgraded to aviation jet fuel, a US$50 billion market driven by increasing global interest on reduction of carbon emissions.

In view of the market potential, UK-based industrial biotechnology firm Green Biologics Limited (GBL) merged with Butylfuel, a US-based renewable chemicals and biofuels company, early this year. The merged GBL will focus on the production of C4 chemicals and butanol from renewable feedstocks, primarily from waste and by-product agricultural sources. GBL has a portfolio of proprietary and engineered Clostridia strains used as biocatalysts to process a wide range of starch, sugar and cellulosic feedstocks.

In China, GBL has three projects underway on molasses and corn by-product feedstocks. In India and Brazil, GBL's focus is molasses, cane and bagasse. In the US, the focus is on both starch-based and cellulosic feedstocks.

Another UK firm working on commercialising biobutanol from whisky by-products is Scotland-based Celtic Renewables, a spin-off from Edinburgh Napier University's Biofuel Research Centre. It will initially focus on Scotland's £4 billion malt whisky industry. Celtic Renewables's fermentation process uses the two main by-products of whisky production - pot ale, the liquid from the copper stills and draff, the spent grains. Each year the industry produces 1,600 million litres of pot ale and 500,000 tonnes of draff.

In other news, Dutch firm DSM and US-based POET, one of the world's largest producer of corn-based ethanol, are partnering to commercially demonstrate and license cellulosic bio-ethanol to produce biofuels. POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels is scheduled to start production in the second half of 2013 at one of the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants in the US. The initial capital expenditure will amount to about US$250 million. The closing of the joint venture is subject to regulatory approvals and other customary closing conditions.

POET has been actively developing cellulosic bio-ethanol for more than a decade and in 2008, started operating a pilot plant at its research centre in Scotland, South Dakota. For the past five years, POET has been working with farmers to bale, transport and store corn crop residue-the cobs, leaves, husks and some stalk left in the field after the grain harvest. DSM already has a position in the development of cellulosic ethanol as the only company offering both yeast and enzyme solutions to increase conversion rates to make the technology commercially viable. If the technology is replicated at POET's network of 27 existing corn ethanol plants, it could produce up to 1 billion gallons/year of cellulosic bio-ethanol.

Meanwhile, DuPont and NexSteppe have also entered into a collaboration to develop feedstocks for biofuels, biopower and biobased products using sweet sorghum and high biomass sorghum hybrids. Under the agreement, DuPont has made an equity investment in NexSteppe, and through its Pioneer Hi-Bred business, will provide advanced technologies to help the company accelerate the breeding and commercialisation of new hybrids of these crops in the US and Brazil.

Sweet sorghum can be used as a complement to sugarcane in existing Brazilian sugar to ethanol mills and as a feedstock for advanced biofuels and other biobased products produced from sugars. High biomass sorghum is a high-yielding crop that can be used as a feedstock for biopower and cellulosic biofuels. DuPont, through its Industrial Biosciences business, operates and develops industrial processes that use sugar as a feedstock.

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