BP implements global biofuels strategy

By Kris Bevill | December 09, 2009
BP plc's alternative fuels sector may have expanded this year to include biobutanol, but the company continues to focus on cellulosic ethanol. According to the company, the petroleum giant's biofuels strategy is three-pronged and includes: advancing a sugarcane-to-ethanol business in Brazil, building a cellulosic biofuel business in the U.S., and developing advanced molecules such as biobutanol.

The first step of BP's plan to build its cellulosic presence in the U.S. is through its joint venture with Verenium Corp. to produce cellulosic ethanol in Florida. The 50-50 partnership, named Vercipia Biofuels, will commercialize technology that is currently being demonstrated at Verenium's demonstration-scale facility in Jennings, La. Groundbreaking on the 36 MMgy Highlands County facility is set for this year, with commercial production scheduled to commence in 2012.

At a recent U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on second-generation biofuels, BP Biofuels North America LLC President Susan Ellerbusch said the joint venture also has plans to develop a second site in the Gulf Coast and anticipates using energy crops, such as energy cane, as feedstock at all of its facilities. "We believe energy grasses will be an essential part of the future U.S. feedstock mix, given their high yield, yield improvement potential and reduced pressure on land resources," she said. "BP intends to broaden our energy grass feedstock portfolio [and] to continue to scale up the production capacity of future units as we move toward a cost structure that can compete with traditional transport fuel sources."

However, while it continues to tout its investments in cellulosic ethanol, BP officials are quick to point out some of the fuel's challenges. BP Biofuels CEO Philip New told attendees at an Oct. 1 climate change seminar that the small percentage of ethanol currently allowed for use in U.S. autos and the fuel's inability to be transported via existing infrastructure have led BP to also develop biobutanol. "Biobutanol gives more miles per gallon than ethanol," New said. "It can be blended in higher concentrations than ethanol. And it doesn't mix with water, so we can easily put it into pumps, pipes and refineries. It means that petrol firms will be able to comply with regulations at lower cost."

BP's biobutanol work is being conducted by Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC, a joint venture developed in July 2009 between BP and DuPont Biofuels. The company plans to display some of its technology at a demonstration-scale facility in Hull, in the United Kingdom, this year. The first commercial-scale biobutanol facility is expected to begin operating in 2013.

Additionally, Vivergo Fuels, a joint venture with DuPont and British Sugar, is constructing a 110 MMgy wheat-to-ethanol production facility on a BP Chemicals site at Saltend, Hull. The plant is scheduled to be begin ethanol production in 2010, however, BP plans to convert the facility to produce biobutanol once its technology has been proven.

Ellerbusch told House members that BP views biobutanol usage as a method to increase the use of biofuels. "BP believes biobutanol will help to accelerate the adoption of biofuels and assist in overcoming the blend wall, so that the U.S. can meet targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport more quickly," she said.

The third prong of BP's biofuels strategy is to increase its presence in the Brazilian sugarcane-to-ethanol market. The company holds a 50 percent stake in Tropical BioEnergia SA, which currently operates one sugarcane-to-ethanol facility and plans to expand to several locations.

Of all of the alternative fuels BP is exploring, the company has made it clear that it does not view corn ethanol as a viable option. "Of the plethora of potential future technologies—photosynthetic algae, gasified biomass, etc., we believe that the technologies most likely to continue to meet our selection criteria are those that involve the conversion of low-cost, low-carbon sugars," New said.