Like ethanol, butanol can be used as a fuel additive to gasoline as a way to reduce harmful vehicle emissions. In just six months, Professor William Jones’ University research team developed an efficient route to n-butanol, making it look more like gasoline, thus enabling butanol to be a better alternative to ethanol.
Jones’ team of five researchers accomplished this by modifying the Guerbet reaction. Named after Frenchman Marcel Guerbet, the organic chemical reaction converts ethanol to butanol plus water. Before the team’s discovery, the Guerbet reaction produced the co-product acetaldehyde which can react with butanol to produce unwanted molecules. Jones’ team modified the reaction to produce only one product and 25 percent more butanol than with the previous process.
Switching from ethanol to butanol prevents engine corrosion. To streamline the modified Guerbet process for the fuel industry, Jones states that “this process would be attached to an ethanol production facility.” The facility would update the process to produce both ethanol and butanol.
Butanol is not currently used in mass because the fermentation process producing it does not build up a large enough concentration, although advances are being made in this process. The typical length of butanol production with the newly developed system is one day. Ideally, for the process to perform at maximum productivity, Jones states, “we need a less expensive catalyst and a longer living catalyst.”
Iridium is used as the initial catalyst for the reaction. However, iridium is quite expensive. According to Jones, “it’s gold expensive.” The financial support of the National Science Foundation and the Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis, an NSF Center for Chemical Innovation program, was needed to conduct their research.
Once efficiency is maximized, consumers ultimately won’t be the ones making behavioral changes. Jones states, “they’ll get the benefits of it without even knowing it.” Changes must be made by companies. According to Jones, “for a company to buy into it, it has to replace a more expensive alternative, not just for a financial benefit, but for an improvement in performance.” As of now, modifying the Guerbet reaction is one improvement in the right direction.
Written by Darya Nicol, class of 2016
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