Biobased Butanol Info

Next Generation Biofuel


Industrial bioproduct


History - BioButanol and Butanol Fermentation

Biobutanol production via anaerobic bacteria fermentation has been observed since 1861, when it was witnessed by Pasteur. During anaerobic bacteria fermentation processes, butanol is a single product among many. Another result is the production of acetone, which was first witnessed in 1905 by Schardinger. By the beginning of the 20th century, interest in butanol had risen sharply. This was due to butanol’s involvement in the solution to a material shortage. A shortage of natural rubber had struck society and efforts were undertaken to make a synthetic rubber. It was found that butadiene or isoprene rubber could be synthesized from butanol or isoamyl alcohol, another fermentation product. This discovery stimulated great interests in anaerobic fermentative processes for compound production.

Between 1912 and 1914, Chaim Weizmann, a chemist, performed one of the first microorganism screenings to study microbiology in hopes to better understand the fermentation process. One species he isolated, Clostridium acetobutylicum, was able to yield more acetone and butanol than previous species while feeding on a larger range of biomass.

The next advancement occurred during World War 1, when the British army needed to produce smokeless gun powder in far larger amounts than importing could handle. In order to produce the smokeless powder, or cordite, acetone was required as a colloidal solvent. To solve the problem, the British army sought the help of Weizmann. Weizmann designed a system to increase acetone production via fermentation, which was later adopted by Great Britain and implemented at the Royal Naval Cordite Factory. Once the U.S. joined the war, a joint project was started between the U.S. and Great Britain to produce acetone in the Midwest United States. The result of the joint project was the opening of two acetone production facilities which were open for less than a year.

After WW1 ended, large stockpiles of butanol had been built up as a byproduct of the acetone production. This stockpile was employed by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. as a solvent for a nitrocellulose lacquer, which was a quick-drying automobile finish. Also, the acetone production facilities, which were employed by the U.S. and Great Britain joint project during the war, were purchased and reopened to produce butanol.

When Weizmann’s patent expired in 1936, a flood of anaerobic fermentation plants were opened. Molasses fermentation processes grew in popularity as new microorganisms were isolated. Every company had its own unique patented microorganism, which was able to produce acetone and butanol in great amounts from the molasses.

The next spike in fermentation utility occurred during WW2, when acetone was again needed for munitions production. Acetone production from molasses was set to the highest sustainable rates and above in some places. Great Britain actually had to import its molasses and the U.S. eventually reverted to corn mash. Other companies involved in acetone production included India, Australia, South Africa, and Japan.

Fermentation processes finally began to experience a decline after the end of WW2 and by the 1960’s, came to a screeching halt in the U.S. This was the time that petrochemical production of solvents became much easier and cheaper and also when farmer interests in molasses caused molasses prices to increase dramatically. The combination of these events made fermentative production of acetone and butanol inefficient and not economical.



" helped me learn about this exciting biobased solvent. I look forward to formulating with it."

- Leonard Shine, USA -