InterviewIsobutanol can help ethanol makers diversify, Gevo CEO

21 June 2013 21:13  [Source: ICIS news]

US Gevo CEO sees isobutanol as way for ethanol makers to diversifyBy Jeremy Pafford

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Get Pat Gruber talking about isobutanol, and the conversation can get quite frothy. The CEO of Colorado-based biochemical producer Gevo does not hold back when it comes to what he says his company can do with carbohydrates.

“If you can make beer out of it, I can make isobutanol out of it,” Gruber said in a telephone interview on Friday.

Whether those carbohydrates come from corn, sugarcane or cellulosic fibres, Gevo can ferment and transform them into a bio-based chemical that can be used in fuels and material production, Gruber said.

Isobutanol and ethanol share similar feedstocks and can be used as fuels or as a blendstock, but the similarities end there, he said.

Gruber and Gevo are quick to compare isobutanol’s resume to ethanol’s. Isobutanol has 82% of the energy content of gasoline; ethanol only has 65%. Also, isobutanol has an oxygen content of 22%, while ethanol is at 35%. Ethanol is fully miscible and thus is difficult to transport via pipeline, while isobutanol is only 8.5% miscible and can be pipelined easily.

But Gruber is not looking for Gevo and its isobutanol technology to necessarily compete with ethanol-producing companies. Rather, Gevo would like to convince ethanol producers that converting some production to isobutanol or adding isobutanol capacity will add value to their companies, he said.

With the current glut in US ethanol production, which Gruber said “got overbuilt” for a gasoline demand pool that is declining – isobutanol production can bring ethanol producers more revenue streams.

“The ethanol guys know they need to diversify. They get it,” Gruber said.

That diversification can lead to more than just making fuel, he said.

Gevo sees isobutanol as a four-carbon alcohol that can be used as a specialty fuel for marine fleets and small engines or converted into renewable iso-paraffinic kerosene to be blended into jet fuel. It also can replace petroleum-based butanol in solvent and coating production.

Dehydrate isobutanol and it becomes isobutylene, which can then be cracked into a host of aromatics and thus be used in production chains that make use of them.

Gevo makes isobutanol at its Luverne, Minnesota, plant, which recently resumed commercial production in single-train mode after it had suffered from microbial contamination.

The issue was with microbes from the air reacting with nutrients during the chemical making process, Gruber said.

“When we added the nutrients, those guys got inspired to make their appearance,” he said.

With the plant being new – it was started up in May 2012 – a little trial and error was not unexpected. But the overall Gevo process of making isobutanol was sound, Gruber said.

“We could see that the fundamental technology was working. … Now we have a mastery of it,” he said.

When fully operational, the plant will be able to produce up to 18m gal/year (68m litres/year) of isobutanol for commercial sale.

Whether Gevo produces isobutanol itself or convinces ethanol producers to use its technology to add isobutanol to their portfolios, the US-based company can be competitive despite being a biochemical producer in the midst of the North America shale oil and gas revolution, Gruber said, and that is because of isobutanol’s energy content, versatility and relative low-carbon footprint compared with petroleum.

“Even at $60 oil, I have a market opportunity,” he said. “At $130 oil, I have a humungous market opportunity.”

By: Jeremy Pafford
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