Killing ethanol

Going green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  June 17, 2011

Estimates vary, but it's safe to say that restaurants, institutions (such as colleges or hospitals), and municipalities waste tons of food every year; last September, a group of students at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor noticed that such waste was happening all around them. To the tune of $90 per ton, Bar Harbor’s food waste was regularly being trucked off Mount Desert Island to be incinerated on the mainland — a missed opportunity that COA senior Nick Harris and three of his classmates decided to address in their social entrepreneurship class.

The result is Gourmet Butanol — an initiative to redirect waste and transform it into usable energy, in the form of an environmentally sustainable fuel. It's been less than a year since the initiative sprung out of that class project, but the idea has accelerated rapidly. Gourmet Butanol is now a team of five that has attracted $12,000 in research and development money, is a part of the college's business incubator, and is working with the school to replace all COA heating oil and gasoline with butanol over the next few years.

The science is relatively simple: Biomass (food waste and other organic materials) is pulverized, and the carbohydrates are extracted (the remaining nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, and other nutrients are composted). Bacterial microbes consume the carbohydrates, which leads to fermentation and the production of butanol (alcohol), which can be used as an energy-efficient fuel.

Butanol's energy content and octane rating (how much the fuel can be compressed before it ignites) are similar to that of gasoline; unlike ethanol (the former darling of biofuels), butanol is non-corrosive to metals — which is why it can be used in existing engines without significant engine-modification, and can be safely shipped along fuel pipelines nationwide. And, while the yeast used to produce ethanol can only digest simple sugars (and therefore only subsidized crops like corn and sugar beets), the bacteria that produces butanol can handle complex carbohydrates (which encompasses not just food waste, but also lawn clippings, paper products, and lobster shells).

Harris believes that these advantages will propel butanol forward, and with it, a renewed perception of what counts as a natural resource.

"The goal is to be able to provide a model for the rest of the world," Harris says in a phone interview. "I don't think there's any such thing as waste. I think we need to look at that as a valuable resource."

In the short term, Harris and the rest of the Gourmet Butanol team would like to "close the loop on Mount Desert Island," meaning: no waste off the island, and no fuel (heating oil or gasoline) on. When Harris graduates (he has one semester left), he'll stay in Maine to help get this business off the ground.

Gourmet Butanol joins a pack of at least a dozen other ventures around the world devoted to mass production and commercialization of biobutanol (so called, occasionally, to distinguish it from butanol that derives from a petrochemical process). For example, BP and the American chemical company DuPont have teamed up to develop biobutanol; they hope to have a commercial quantity available by next year or 2013.

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