An advanced future for Gevo

By Erin Voegele | September 15, 2011

Gevo Inc. is diligently working to scale up its isobutanol production technology. The company recently purchased an ethanol plant in Minnesota, which will be converted to isobutanol production by mid 2012, and a second conversion project is also in the works in South Dakota via a joint venture, said Dave Munz, the company’s business development manager for transportation fuels. Munz said that the South Dakota project should be producing by late 2012 or early 2013. “The adoption rate from [that point on] is a function of how fast people see this as an opportunity to move forward,” he said.

Gevo’s technology is focused on retrofitting existing ethanol plants. “Why recreate the wheel?” asked Munz. “There is 14-plus billion gallons of infrastructure out there. A lot of money has been spent, so let’s use the existing plants.”

While Gevo’s process will initially utilize corn feedstock, Munz noted that it may be possible for the resulting fuel to generate advanced renewable identification numbers (RINs). “If I take a plant, convert it to isobutanol, and find a different energy source than natural gas to fire the plant—whether that be anaerobic digestion,…wood fired boilers or some biomass-based boiler—I have the capability of approaching the U.S. EPA to get an advanced RIN type,” he said. “That means that I have a 50 percent greenhouse gas reduction.”

According to Munz, Gevo has an advanced pathway pending with the EPA right now. “Later this year we hope to have a response back from the EPA,” he said. “With EPA there is no guarantee on anything, but they pre-reviewed our process for getting to 50 percent greenhouse gas [reduction], we made the recommended changes to our submission that they told us, so we’ll see.”

Although Gevo intends to use corn as a feedstock initially, Munz stresses that will not always be the case. “We recognize that the future is not corn,” he said. “As soon as it is practical, you have to get off the corn and you have to find another feedstock that is going to give you sufficient material to make the products.”

In fact, Gevo has a strategic alliance with Cargill that should allow it to transfer the production pathway of its current yeast to one that can consume both C5 and C6 sugars. “Our management team, when they were at Cargill, basically developed a yeast that eats both C5 and C6 sugars. As that technology is made available to the industry at a cost that is competitive, we can bolt it onto the front end, switch out the corn, and put our pathway into the bug that eats both C5 and C6 sugars.”

Gevo strongly believes that isobutanol will have a market as a drop-in fuel, said Munz. However, the company is also targeting other possible markets. “By the end of this year, we will have a 10,000 gallon-per-month facility [here in Texas]—a pilot plant—that will be making iso-paraffinic kerosene (IPK) from isobutanol,” he continued. “That [IPK] is being used for engine testing for biojet.” A prestep to that conversion involves taking the water off the isobutanol molecule, resulting in an isobutylene molecule. Isobutylene or butylene molecules can be combined to produce not only biojet and IPK, but also alkylate and diesel.

Munz spoke about Gevo’s technology and business plan at the International Biorefining Conference & Trade Show in Houston on Sept. 15 on a panel titled “Exploring Market Drivers and Opportunities for Advanced Biofuels and Biobased Chemicals.” Additional speakers on the panel included Patrik Lownertz, vice president of sales and marketing at Chemrec AB; Patrick Truesdale, senior consultant at Emerson Process Management; and Alejandro Zamorano, a U.S. Bioenergy Analyst with Bloomberg L.P.