Iowa ethanol plants signal intent to produce butanol

By Kris Bevill | May 01, 2012

Less a month after inking a deal with Fagen Inc. to serve as the engineering, procurement and construction firm for butanol production facilities, two more ethanol plants have signed letters of intent to join butanol technology developer Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC’s Early Adopters Group.

Lincolnway Energy LLC, a 55 MMgy plant in Nevada, Iowa, and Corn LP, a 50 MMgy plant in Goldfield, Iowa, along with EAG founding member Highwater Ethanol  LLC, a 50 MMgy facility in Lamberton, Minn., have agreed to explore the potential to retrofit their facilities to produce butanol using Butamax technology. Butamax expects to announce a retrofit schedule early next year. The first facility to undergo modifications could begin producing butanol at a commercial scale in 2014.

“The industry insight and capability of these facilities offer invaluable support for the launch of biobutanol,” Butamax CEO Paul Beckwith said. “Fagen’s construction expertise, Butamax’s pioneering biobutanol technology and the operational excellence of our EAG members is an ideal combination for enabling the rapid scale-up of biobutanol production.”

Butamax created the EAG with the goal of collaborating with ethanol producers on the final planning stages of butanol conversion. Members of the EAG will be kept abreast of technology advancements at Butamax and have the opportunity to be the first facilities to take advantage of the technology, according to the company.

Butamax, a joint venture between BP and DuPont, is currently producing butanol at a demonstration-scale production facility in the UK and generating the design plans for commercial-scale production, according to Beckwith, who said the partnership with Fagen will allow quick expansion of the technology at existing facilities once the first plant is up and running. “Fagen has built more ethanol capacity than any other company; 60 percent of the ethanol capacity in the U.S.,” he said. “They know the facilities inside and out because they’ve built so many of them. And because they’ve built so many, they’ve developed the capability to execute quickly and cheaply in terms of the construction.” Fagen’s expertise also allows the execution of multiple projects simultaneously, according to Butamax. The company expects to utilize that capability to rapidly deploy its commercial technology, retrofitting several facilities at a time after the first plant becomes operational.

Current members of the EAG joined the group for various reasons, but the primary attraction is the potential to produce biofuel with a higher value than ethanol, according to Butamax. Ethanol producers battling tight profitability margins are becoming increasingly interested in the potential to expand the revenue streams at their facilities and butanol provides a way to continue producing fuel, but without the blendwall issues associated with ethanol, said Pam Schools, public relations and corporate communications manager at Butamax. Retrofitting ethanol plants for butanol production using Butamax technology will reduce the facilities’ nameplate capacities by about 20 percent, but because butanol has a higher energy content and value than ethanol, companies stand to make more money with less volume, she said.

The Lincolnway Energy and Corn LP facilities were both originally designed by ICM/Fagen and built by Fagen. Lincolnway is also set to be the neighboring facility to Dupont Industrial Biosciences' (formerly Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC) first commercial-scale corn stover-to-ethanol facility, having agreed last year to sell land adjacent to the corn ethanol plant for the 25 MMgy cellulosic project. Construction of that facility is anticipated to begin this year.

Butamax said it is involved in ongoing, serious discussions with other ethanol producers interested in deploying butanol technology and expects to announce additional members of the EAG soon.