By Robert Warren
Butanol is another amazing alternative fuel, because it can be made from things like rice straw and old newspapers. It has as much energy as gasoline (BTU’S/gal), it burns with the same air/fuel ratio, and it will even mix with gasoline which means that you don’t have to drain your tank first in order to use it. You don’t even have to re-tune or adjust your engine. The best part is that it can even be made from lawn clippings and leaves.
Butanol is normally made by anaerobic bacteria feeding on cellulose, and it is damned smelly stuff, stinking beyond belief. It reminds me of toe-jam! But it is also a well-known chemical by-product, and is used for tons of things, especially the perfume industry, but usually in tiny quantities. It is related to Butyric acid, which is what synthetic orange and strawberry flavours are made of. It is hard to believe you make one out of the other, with such a God-awful smell, but then,chemistry is an amazing science.
While I have read various pieces of literature on the subject, I only have personal knowledge of two people who ever tried to make it. The first was Pete Charles, the same person who designed the Charles 803 alcohol still which I have written about extensively. (I have built this still over 130 times.) Pete tried to make it from lawn clippings (ordinary grass). It is a biological decomposition, via an anaerobic process (no oxygen), but the smell was so bad, and extremely difficult to get rid of the smell afterwards. In fact it was a serious nuisance! Several other by-products, including butyric acid, are produced (although in small amounts), but they are can be a serious danger to eyes, nose, and skin. The biological bacteria process is an organic process, but yet it has to be very closely controlled in a sealed environment, preferably sealed stainless steel or very heavy plastic fermentation tanks, with closed pumps circulation for mixing, and large sealed plastic settling tanks. I really don’t know enough about this process to help you make it. But that’s what the Net is for, right?
The other person I met during this period, about 20 years ago, was Dr. Sydney Levi, a former chemistry professor, chemistry textbook author, and holder of many patents involving plastics extrusion processes. He was going to build a huge $3 million dollar plant in Fresno, Calif. and convert rice straw to butanol. He said he had the funding in place and he was working on his proposal full time when I met him. He had made it in his laboratory many, many times. I spent over an hour with him, he showed me the plant diagrams and chemical processes for how the process would work. We discussed many different issues, as I was at that time writing freelance articles for a trade journal, Gasohol, USA. Somehow, the project died, and I moved to Oregon, and I never was able to follow up and find out what happened.
More recently, a US government group in Colorado, NREL Laboratories, has done some research on this subject and has some articles available on the net. I visited their facility 4 or 5 years ago and got a private tour, where they showed me the complex laboratory where they were researching acid hydrolysis in combination with biological decomposition of various lignums and cellulosic materials. They said it looked completely feasible in terms of economics. But doing something successfully in the lab and then making it work in the real world are two different things entirely. You need a lot of money and a lot of scientific knowledge.