As petroleum-based oils and their refined byproducts become increasingly expensive — financially, geologically, and environmentally — many countries are looking for new energy sources to replace them. In the United States, ethanol may be the current political darling, but that does not mean that it is the most promising option, nor the most efficient in terms of energy output for required input.
One alternative, butanol, which is made from sugar beets, may be receiving little attention or political support. But that may change, especially as more industry players learn of its advantages over ethanol, and Americans learn of the ecological disadvantages to corn-based ethanol. For instance, butanol does not attract water the way ethanol does, as a result of its more complex molecular structure, namely, four carbon atoms instead of two. As a result, butanol can be transported through pipelines, as is done for crude oil and gasoline. This is a huge advantage over ethanol, which must be transported on trucks and barges, which is much more expensive and risky, particularly for such a volatile fuel.
Much of the push for butanol is coming from Great Britain, and not the United States, where we have a firmly entrenched and politically aggressive agricultural industry that is investing heavily in promoting corn-based ethanol. BP, formally known as British Petroleum, is teaming up with American chemical powerhouse DuPont, to manufacture and distribute butanol, as a viable and more efficient form of energy.
In the years ahead, it will be interesting to see if the "sugar beets" can beat the "cornhuskers" — not just in the alternative power research labs of the world, but also in the power corridors of Washington, DC.