Butanol is an alcohol that can be used as a transport fuel. It is a higher member of the series of straight chain alcohols with each molecule of butanol (C4H10O) containing four carbon atoms rather than two as in ethanol.

Butanol was tradionally produced by ABE fermentation - the anaerobic conversion of carbohydrates by strains of Clostridium into acetone, butanol and ethanol. However, cost issues, the relatively low-yield and sluggish fermentations, as well as problems caused by end product inhibition and phage infections, meant that ABE butanol could not compete on a commercial scale with butanol produced synthetically and almost all ABE production ceased as the petrochemical industry evolved.

However, there is now increasing interest in use of biobutanol as a transport fuel. 85% Butanol/gasoline blends can be used in unmodified petrol engines. It can be transported in existing gasoline pipelines and produces more power per litre than ethanol. Biobutanol can be produced from cereal crops, sugar cane and sugar beet, etc, but can also be produced from cellulosic raw materials.

Isobutanol ASTM standards

In October 2013, ASTM D7862 was announced for blends of butanol with gasoline at 1 - 12.5 % vol in automotive spark ignition engines. The specification covers three butanol isomers: 1-butanol, 2-butanol, and 2-methyl-1-propanol. The specification specifically excludes 2-methyl-2-propanol (that is, tert-butyl alcohol).

In December 2014, ASTM D7875, was approved: 'Standard Test Method for Determination of Butanol and Acetone Content of Butanol for Blending with Gasoline by Gas Chromatography'. The standard is primarily designed to ensure the purity of isobutanol manufactured for use as a fuel.

EU funded projects


The ButaNexT project will develop highly efficient production processes and convert sustainable feedstocks for the next generation of biobutanol. This will contribute to overcoming the current challenges and limitations exhibited by the first generation of biofuels. Duration: 2015 - 2018.

Commercial Development of biobutanol

A number of companies are now investigating novel alternatives to traditional ABE fermentation, which would enable biobutanol to be produced on an industrial scale. These are summarised below.

The two leading technology developers in this area, Gevo and Butamax, have been involved in a patent dispute. Up-to-date information on the respective positions of each company is available from their websites. The information presented on this page was believed to be accurate at the time of writing. However, neither the members of the European Biofuels Technology Platform, the Secretariat, the European Commission, nor any other individual or organisation involved with this activity, accept responsibility or liability whatsoever with regard to the material on this web page or the use to which it is put.


pdfGevo white paper on iso-butanol

On 24 May 2012, Gevo commenced production at the world's first commercial-scale 18 MGPY biobutanol plant, developed by conversion of the former Agri-Energy corn ethanol plant in Luverne. A number of technical challenges have been overcome (e.g. improved batch turnaround times, avoidance of infections, etc) in the first months of operation, and the company was on target to produce 50,000 to 100,000 gallons per month of isobutanol by the end of 2014 [Source: Gevo]. The company reports that is getting close to the efficiency required for fully commercial operation. In March 2015, Praj Industries Ltd. signed a MOU to become a Gevo licensee.

In December 2013, Gevo announced that the U.S. Army succesful trials of a 50/50 blend of Gevo's ATJ-8 fuel in a Sikorsky UH-60 helicopter. The use of 16% isobutanol in UL 87A pumps has also been approved by Underwriter Laboratories, with no need for any equipment modification.

In September 2009, Gevo, Englewood, CO announced that Gevo Integrated Fermentation Technology (GIFT™) will be used in an ICM demonstration plant in St. Joseph, Missouri to produce one million gallons of biobutanol per year by retrofitting an existing ethanol plant. The process can utilise much of the existing ethanol production system, but uses cellulosic yeast strains engineered to produce butanol instead of ethanol. In 2009, Gevo entered a licensing agreement with Cargill granting the company exclusive rights to use Cargill's host organisms in Gevo Integrated Fermentation Technology. Total has also reportedly invested in Gevo. This technology built upon research by James Liao at the University of California, who developed E.Coli strains with genes coding for 2 enzymes that converted keto acides into aldehydes, and aldehydes into 1-butanol. When further manipulated, the microbes were able to produce butanol at much higher efficiencies, suitable for industrial production. In 2008, Gevo acquired an exclusive license to commercialize Liao's technology.

Butamax Advanced Biofuels

In October 2013, Butamax™ Advanced Biofuels LLC, and Highwater Ethanol LLC, a leading producer of first generation ethanol, commenced a retrofit of Highwater’s ethanol plant in Lamberton, Minnesota for the production of biobutanol. In August 2014, phase one of the retrofit was completed, with the implementation of a proprietary Butamax technology to removes corn oil and prepare corn mash for fermentation.

Butamax and Highwater have entered into definitive agreements for license of Butamax’s patented corn oil separation technology, which is an integral part of a full retrofit to biobutanol production.

In April 2012, Butamax entered into collaboration with leading biofuels engineering and construction company Fagen Inc. for commercial-scale biobutanol production (via retrofit of ethanol plants) using Butamax technology.

In December 2011 Butamax™ Advanced Biofuels announced agreement on commercialization principles with Highwater Ethanol, the first entrant to the Butamax Early Adopters Group [Source: Butamax™ website].

In June 2006, DuPont and BP formed a partnership to develop new biobutanol production technology using lignocellulosic feedstocks. In July 2009 the partnership was cleared to take over the US company Biobutanol LLC. In 2009, BP and DuPont formed Butamax™ Advanced Biofuels, Wilmington. Butamax’s business model is to offer current ethanol producers proprietary biobutanol technology to permit improved biofuels growth and plant profitability.

In November 2009, BP and DuPont announced the formation of Kingston Research Ltd and the establishment of a £25 million advanced biofuels research centre in Hull for demonstration of biobutanol technology (which was scheduled to become operational in 2010).

The Abengoa method for production of butanol via catalytic condensation

The Abengoa production method involves catalytic condensation of ethanol to produce butanol through the Guerbet (2CH3-CH2OHCH3- CH2-CH2-CH2OH + H20) reaction. The company has developed and patented a catalyst that enables the manufacture of biobutanol competitively. In November 2013, Abengoa announced that it has produced butanol with 99.8% purity and plans to start commercial-scale produciton of butanol in 2015.

The process allows a butanol plant to be built as an 'add on' to an existing commercial ethanol plant, enabling the production of butanol without having to halt the ethanol production process

Green Biologics

In the UK, Green Biologics has developed butanol-producing GM microbial strains and will integrate these into a novel fermentation process. This technology advance should result in a step change in the economic viability of the fermentation and enable the large scale production of Green Biologics' Butafuel™ product.

In January 2015, Green Biologics announced it has raised $76m towards acquisition and conversion of a 21 MMgy plant (Central MN Ethanol Co-op) based in Little Falls, Minnesota. Initially the facility will continue to produce ethanol, but aims to start production of of n-butanol and acetone in 2016.

In January 2012, Green Biologics Limited announced a merger with butylfuel™ Inc., US. The new company will operate under the Green Biologics name with headquarters in the UK, but with a strong operational presence and commercial focus in the US contributed by Green Biologics, Inc. [Source: Green Biologics]. Previously, Green Biologics was also involved in biobutanol development in India and China.

Cobalt Technologies

In April 2013, it was announced that Cobalt Technologies, Naval Air Warfare China Lake Weapons Division, Show Me Energy Cooperative and NREL will cooperate in a $2.5m pilot plant for conversion of 'switchgrass butanol' to military-grade jet fuel. In March 2012 it was announced that Albermale would manufacture biojet fuel from butanol, provided by Cobalt.

Other developments and demonstrations in butanol production

Other companies developing butanol technology include Tetravitae Bioscience, and METabolic EXplorer, France.


Global R&D on production of butanol and use as a transport fuel

The USDA ARS has carried out studies showing that barley straw and corn stover can be converted to butanol with high efficiency via Separate Hydrolysis, Fermentation and Recovery (SHFR) or by Simultaneous Saccharification, Fermentation and Recovery (SSFR). Gas stripping can be used to recover high yields of butanol from the SSFR process [Source, Quereshi et al, ARS Bioenergy Research Unit]. See also Closing In on Butanol for Biofuel.

According to their website the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded Microvi Biotechnologies a grant to "develop a breakthrough technology to dramatically improve the yield and performance of biobutanol processes. The technology overcomes toxic and inhibitory effects on butanol producing microorganisms, a major bottleneck in scaling existing biobutanol processes” in 2013

The Wass Research Group, University of Bristol, UK, is developing improved catalysts with yields of 95% offering lower-cost conversion of ethanol to butanol, and potentially enabling ethanol producers to avoid high retrofit costs. Researchers now plan to scale-up the current lab technology as a first step towards commercialisation [Ref: Catalytic Conversion of Ethanol into an Advanced Biofuel: Unprecedented Selectivity for n-Butanol, Prof. Duncan F. Wass etal, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, Volume 52, Issue 34, pages 9005–9008, August 19, 2013].

University of Michigan is developing a method for butanol production from cellulosic plant material using a combination of Trichoderma reesei and E. coli in a bioreactor. See 'Design and characterization of synthetic fungal-bacterial consortia for direct production of isobutanol from cellulosic biomass', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [19 August 2013].

Related content