BP explores options, remains committed to cellulosic ethanol

By Kris Bevill | October 06, 2009
Report posted Nov. 5, 2009, at 12:51 p.m. CST

BP plc's alternative fuels sector may have expanded this year to include biobutanol, but the company's primary focus continues to be cellulosic ethanol, according to BP Biofuels communications advisor Thea Sherer. When asked if BP might be shifting its efforts to drop-in replacements or other advanced biofuels, Sherer stated the petroleum giant does not favor any one of its alternative fuels projects over the other. In fact, she said the company's U.S. cellulosic ethanol joint venture with Verenium Corp., Vercipia Biofuels, will serve as a flagship of sorts to commercialize various technologies which can later be deployed at international locations.

"Our biofuels strategy has three strands: growing a material sugarcane ethanol business in Brazil, building a cellulosic biofuel business in the U.S. and developing advanced molecules like biobutanol," Sherer said. "For cellulosic ethanol, the first step is through our joint venture with Verenium. When the technology is proven and introduced in the U.S., and given the right commercial opportunities, we would look to introduce it in other markets." Sherer said the Vercipia plant in Florida is expected to begin production 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."

While it continues to invest in cellulosic ethanol, BP officials are, however, quick to point out some if the fuel's challenges. BP Biofuels CEO Philip New told attendees at an Oct. 1 climate change seminar that the small percentage of ethanol that is currently allowed for use in U.S. autos and the fuel's inability to be transported via existing infrastructure led to BP's decision 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."

Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC is a joint venture developed in July between BP and DuPont Biofuels. The company plans to display some of its recently developed technology at a demonstration-scale facility in Hull, United Kingdom, which is scheduled to become operational in 2010. The first commercial-scale biobutanol facility is expected to begin operating in 2013.

Ellerbusch told House members that BP views biobutanol as a way 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 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.