Is it wishful thinking, or have billionaire Richard Branson, DuPont and BP Plc found an effective alternative to ethanol for mixing with gasoline? According to a January 29 report from Bloomberg, butanol is headed for its debut in the U.S. by 2015 and will challenge ethanol’s domination of the $26 billion renewable fuels market.

On the surface, it would appear that falling ethanol production could spell trouble for ag equipment makers and dealers. Since 2007, growing ethanol production has helped launch an unprecedented increase in the price of corn and other row-crops. This, in turn, has fueled an escalation in farm equipment sales to near record levels.

But according to the report, like ethanol, the colorless alcohol can be produced from corn, though it packs more energy when mixed into gasoline. “Butamax Advanced Biofuel LLC, funded by DuPont Co. and BP Plc, is retrofitting an ethanol plant in Minnesota to begin making butanol in commercial volumes in 2015. Gevo Inc., backed by French oil producer Total SA and Branson through his Virgin Green Fund, already runs a distillery 60 miles away. Both say they’ve lined up clients for large-scale deliveries.

“This is the future of renewable fuels,” Branson said. “It’s also hugely versatile so it can be created to produce gasoline fuel blends, rubbers, solvents, plastics and jet fuels, which give us scope to enter into a range of markets.”

The report goes on to say that companies like “Butamax and Gevo are urging more producers to retrofit their plants on the technological promise that little else is needed — the distribution networks and vehicle engines work just as well with butanol as they do with ethanol.”

While butanol has existed for decades as a chemical byproduct of oil refining, making it from crops is a success for the renewables energy industry. The process that now depends on corn as a raw material can be adapted to work with other substances such as sugar cane and cellulosic biomass, resulting in a fuel called biobutanol, according to Butamax.

At the same time, some are not so sure the effort is worth the risk. “There is certainly potential, but there have been quite considerable technical problems in the technology” to ferment butanol, said Clare Wenner, a transport analyst at London-based Renewable Energy Assn. “It’s taking a lot longer than anybody thought years ago.”

You can read the full report at