Biofuels have their problems, surely, (competition with agriculture, a high carbon footprint, and incompatibility with gas engines, to name a few) but maybe that’s because we aren’t focusing on the right type of fuel. The answer lies in butanol, says James Liao of the University of California at Los Angeles in order to skirt many of the issues biofuels have brought to the table. By focusing on the technical and policy perspective on “Biomass-to-Biofuels Conversion” Liao establishes butanol as the non-agricultural, fast growing alternative within the alternative fuel industry.
Butanol is an alcohol that is similar to ethanol but has a number of advantages. Butanol is a slightly larger molecule which has more energy as the same volume of ethanol. It can go into existing gas tanks (unlike ethanol which requires modified engines), butanol is less corrosive than ethanol, and it could potentially be transported in pipelines, rather than relying on truck or rail transport.
The problem is, butanol is hard to make. Yeast and other microorganisms regularly churn out industrially useful volumes of ethanol when given a food source like corn plants. But the bacteria that make butanol do so in small amounts and only during part of their life cycle. And these bacteria are difficult to work with in the lab.
When Laio set out to engineer bacteria to produce butanol, he chose to work with E. coli bacteria. Rather than starting with the bacteria that naturally produce ethanol and trying to improve their efficiency, Laio decided to use fast growing and easy to manipulate E. coli bacteria instead.
Laio’s lab created the world’s first microbes that can produce a form of butanol called isobutanol. And he’s been coaxing the bacteria to produce greater amounts of the stuff, and has upped production almost 10 fold since he began. Now, says Liao, the amounts of butanol these bacteria can make are industrially relevant. When Laio finished speaking, an audience member asked what many were undoubtedly thinking: How much will a gallon of butanol cost us? Consultants have looked at that, Laio says cryptically, and “they are hopeful.” With crude oil dipping in and out of $100 per barrel, so are a number of car owners.