A post-graduate student at Michigan State University thinks that upgrading ethanol to a higher grade of alcohol - 1-butanol - will help the ethanol industry get past the "blender's wall," especially as the price of corn rises and crude oil prices fall.
Tyler Jordison, 24, of rural Fort Dodge and a 2006 graduate of Fort Dodge Senior High, said he's been interested in biofuels since he visited the Iowa Corn booth at the Iowa State Fair while a sophomore at Simpson College, in Indianola.
Jordison, a chemical engineer working in his second year of his doctorate degree program, said using existing known chemical processes, ethanol can be upgraded to 1-butanol, making it a more efficient fuel, since it contains a longer carbon tail than ethanol, thus having more energy to burn.
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
Tyler Jordison, of rural Fort Dodge, shows on a chart how a process can be used to upgrade ethanol — 1-butanol — into a higher-efficiency fuel. It’s the next generation in biofuels, he said.
"It's next-step refining," Jordison said, "a second-generation biofuel."
Jordison said there are ethanol manufacturers working on making isobutanol directly from corn starch. However, that would require a bigger plant than existing ethanol facilities. However, using what is called the Guerbet reaction, ethanol plants would be able to add some new processing equipment and manufacture 1-butanol, using ethanol as the feed stock. The same process can be used to upgrade 1-butanol to hexanol, which would contain even more enegry.
The Guerbet system is a method for carbon-to-carbon coupling of alcohols. Jordison said it takes two alchohol molecules, creating a longer carbon chain. As more carbon accumulates, it forces out the oxygen, which drops out as water, which allows the upgraded alcohol to burn hotter.
"It's a promising way to make these alcohols," Jordison said, "which are better products than ethanol."
Jordison, along with help from his program adviser, created a poster explaining his project and submitted it for judging at last June's Corn Utilization and Technology Conference in Indiana. His project won the corn growing, dry grind processing and wet milling industries category. The award was given by the National Corn Growers Association.
Jordison said he was surprised and excited to have won the award, even though he expected the project would garner close attention from ethanol manufacturers. And it did, with representatives from Archer-Daniel-Midland, Cargill and BP discussing his conclusions.
Jordison said he has successfully made the chemical transformation of ethanol to 1-butaneol in small amounts in a lab setting; however, he acknowledged he's in the early stages in development.
"The actual process is simple," Jordison said, "but the next step is how to optimize ... and ... mass produce efficiently.
"This is a real interesting candidate as a biofuel.
It's not much different than ethanol, but its several times more valuable."
Jordison said he expects that until the biofuel industry gets a clear picture of the cost of upgrading ethanol to 1-butanol, little will be done as far as commerial development.
But research is underway.
"It would be awesome to make this work," he said, "and bring it back to Iowa.
"My family is here and most of the (U.S.') ethanol comes from here. It makes sense."