The 2012 London Olympics, biofuels-style: BP to showcase its three most advanced biofuels

July 23, 2012 |

As the 2012 Summer Games approach, BP Biofuels launches its showcase for cellulosic ethanol, renewable diesel, and biobutanol.

Amidst the blizzard of demo drives and informational marketing, why are these molecules key to “fueling the future”?

This Friday, the games of the 2012 London Olympiad will commence, and for nearly three weeks more than one billion viewers worldwide will be treated to the best, the fastest, the most graceful and the most stirring performances in sport.

Here in the US, coverage of the opening ceremonies will begin at 7:30 Eastern time, as NBC sounds the familiar medley of Leo Arnaud’s Bugler’s Dream and John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare, designed as Williams said to musically represent “the spirit of cooperation, of heroic achievement, all the striving and preparation that go before the events and all the applause that comes after them.”

Because of the massive scope of the viewership and the immense crowds in London, the Olympics are something of an unparalleled marketing platform. This year in London, BP Biofuels will be using the occasion to showcase the future of fuels, when BP’s sugarcane-based diesel, cellulosic ethanol and Butamax biobutanol will be used (in blends) to power the Olympic fleet, and will be available at BP’s retail site right before the Hammersmith Flyover in west London.

The site is home to BP’s largest station in London, and well known to visitors shuttling along the A4 between Heathrow and the West End. There, BP will promote biofuels with information displays; a new, futuristic BP Ultimate Bioblended dispenser; and, the opportunity to experience the fuels themselves.

“The Olympics have given us a podium,” noted BP Biofuels chief executive Philip New, “to convince the most skeptical media in the world – the UK media – that these future fuels are real, not science fiction. And to demonstrate to a cynical world that advanced biofuels are here.”

“At the back of the station,” New added, “we have built these three pavilions to take you through the story of how we are fueling the future. We’ll have miscanthus growing there, and this really cool pump that recognizes what car is coming up and what it wants. We’ll have hundreds of guests, journalists, and VIPs and we will have an opportunity to educate them that all we are talking about is for real.”

Cellulosic ethanol

On hand will be cellulosic ethanol produced at the BP Biofuels demonstration plant in Jennings, Louisiana. Blended with BP Ultimate unleaded it is, at 103, the highest-octane fuel ever pumped from a UK forecourt.

Renewable diesel

Also on offer will be renewable diesel made in BP’s partnership with DSM’s Martek unit, which New notes is “in the same family as Solazyme-type technology.” The fuel, which is produced from conventional sugars, is being produced at a “Jennings-scale” pilot by the partnership.


The third advanced biofuel is biobutanol, produced in the Butamax joint venture demonstration plant, constructed by BP and DuPont in the UK (at Hull). Now, interestingly, the biobutanol will be blended at 24 percent with conventional gasoline. Let’s look at that in a little more detail.

The biobutanol opportunity

As we have covered extensively in recent months in the Digest, both Butamax and its rival Gevo have signed up just on 1 billion gallons in ethanol production capacity into their early adopter advisory groups. The plant conversions are already taking place for Gevo, and in 2014 Butamax is expected to go operational with its first conversions.

What makes those conversions interesting the very near-term potential of biobutanol to be a “blend wall killer,” as New observed.

How so? There’s some controversy over the exact maximum blending rate that will be allowed for biobutanol – but it is widely believed that biobutanol can be green-lighted under the Clean Air Act for blends of up to the 16-17 percent range.

(From a vehicle compatibility perspective, keep in mind that, for the London Olympics, biobutabnol will be blended in BMW 5-series hybrids with no modifications whatsoever to the vehicles. In fact, BP Biofuels has tested biobutanol at 60 percent blends with gasoline with no trouble.)

So, how exactly is that a blend wall killer? Well, keep in mind that, for example, the US ethanol fleet of around 180 production plants can produce nearly 15 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Yet the US consumes these days around 130 billion gallons of gasoline – leaving a lot of ethanol will no place to go (except export markets) owing to the 10 percent blend limitation.

At a 16 percent blend rate, the same gasoline demand could support 20.8 billion gallons of biobutanol. And, keep in mind that the ethanol production would max out at around 12 billion gallons of biobutanol, owing to the lower yields because biobutanol is a bigger molecule.

Where does that leave us? Instead of 2 billion gallons of ethanol with no place to go, the US could add 70 percent more capacity and still have room to grow.

And, because a gallon of biobutanol (based on its BTUs) counts for 1.3 gallons of ethanol in totting up obligations under the Renewable Fuel Standard, that 20.8 billion gallons in production would count for 27 billion gallons of ethanol-equivalent fuel under RFS2.

Leaving the US biofuels industry with only 9 billion gallons of ethanol-equivalent fuel to produce via other capacity. That translates to 7 billion gallons of renewable gasoline, 6 billion gallons of biodiesel or 5.3 billion gallons of renewable diesel – to mention options in other drop-in fuels.

The Bottom Line

BP Biofuels has cleverly selected its fuels – choosing, for example, not to showcase its main current product, which is the Brazilian sugarcane ethanol produced at its three large refineries and sugarcane plantations in Brazil.

Why clever?

Currently biofuels already make up three per cent of transport fuels used around the world and BP estimates they could account for seven per cent of all transport fuels by 2030.

BP is doing much in London this week to demonstrate exactly how the industry is going to move from 3 to 7 in roughly half the time that it took the industry to get from 0 to 3. Which means focusing attention on the reality of biobutanol, the reality of cellulosic biofuels, and the reality of drop-in diesels made today from conventional sugars and (soon, we hope) from cellulosic sugars as well.

All of which will ultimately reflect, as John Williams said of his Olympic fanfare, “the spirit of cooperation, of heroic achievement,” not to mention “the striving and preparation.

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