Butanol has been acknowledged as an advanced biofuel, but its production through acetone-butanol-ethanol (ABE) fermentation by clostridia is still not economically competitive, due to low butanol yield and titer. In this article, update progress in butanol production is reviewed. Low price and sustainable feedstocks such as lignocellulosic residues and dedicated energy crops are needed for butanol production at large scale to save feedstock cost, but processes are more complicated, compared to those established for ABE fermentation from sugar- and starch-based feedstocks. While rational designs targeting individual genes, enzymes or pathways are effective for improving butanol yield, global and systems strategies are more reasonable for engineering strains with stress tolerance controlled by multigenes. Compared to solvent-producing clostridia, engineering heterologous species such as Escherichia coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae with butanol pathway might be a solution for eliminating the formation of major byproducts acetone and ethanol so that butanol yield can be improved significantly. Although batch fermentation has been practiced for butanol production in industry, continuous operation is more productive for large scale production of butanol as a biofuel, but a single chemostat bioreactor cannot achieve this goal for the biphasic ABE fermentation, and tanks-in-series systems should be optimized for alternative feedstocks and new strains. Moreover, energy saving is limited for the distillation system, even total solvents in the fermentation broth are increased significantly, since solvents are distilled to ~40% by the beer stripper, and more than 95% water is removed with the stillage without phase change, even with conventional distillation systems, needless to say that advanced chemical engineering technologies can distil solvents up to ~90% with the beer stripper, and the multistage pressure columns can well balance energy consumption for solvent fraction. Indeed, an increase in butanol titer with ABE fermentation can significantly save energy consumption for medium sterilization and stillage treatment, since concentrated medium can be used, and consequently total mass flow with production systems can be reduced. As for various in situ butanol removal technologies, their energy efficiency, capital investment and contamination risk to the fermentation process need to be evaluated carefully.
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