US Gevo sees isobutanol as a complement to ethanol

18 February 2014 16:00 Source:ICIS News

Pat Gruber Gevo CEOHOUSTON (ICIS)--US biotech company Gevo is promoting isobutanol as a complement to ethanol, which could continue to struggle with slow demand.

Finding new markets is a key consideration for the ethanol industry, which is meeting on Tuesday at the National Ethanol Conference in Orlando, Florida.

Ethanol consumption has been sluggish for years. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects the US to consume 1.119 quadrillion Btus worth of ethanol in 2014, up from 1.092 quadrillion Btus in 2010. In 2015, consumption could actually decline to 1.111 quadrillion Btus.

Ethanol demand has been weak because overall gasoline demand in the US is also weak, and it is expected to remain flat for years. But ethanol is facing other headwinds as well.

Because overall fuel demand is falling, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed lowering the mandated volume of ethanol that must be blended into gasoline.

In addition, the US has only slowly been adopting higher blends of ethanol such as those containing 85% (E85) or 15% (E15). By far, 10% ethanol (E10) is still the most common blend in the US.

Although producers such as General Motors (GM) are making vehicles that can use E15, it will still take years for those automobiles to replace the existing fleet of vehicles that burn 10% ethanol.

Plus, fuelling stations still need to install more pumps that can sell E15. Only 59 stations sell the fuel in all of the US, according to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA).

Similar challenges face E85.

"People in general recognise that ethanol has hit a potential wall," said Patrick Gruber, CEO of Gevo. "Ethanol plant owners and companies who own plants are asking themselves how they can grow their business."

One way is to add product lines to their businesses, Gruber said.

New fermentation technology could give ethanol producers several alternatives, such as farnesene, succinic acid, butanediol (BDO) and acrylic acid.

Gevo is focusing on isobutanol, which the company is producing at a plant in Luverne, Minnesota. The company is in the midst of commissioning its plant using corn mash as a feedstock.

"For us, we see a large opportunity and potential in gasoline blendstock," Gruber said. "It's possible to get the same miles per gallon that you can get from hydrocarbon gasoline."

For comparison, a 16% isobutanol blend delivers similar oxygenate content as a 10% ethanol blend.  

In addition to a gasoline blendstock, isobutanol can be used as a feedstock to produce jet fuel, something that Gevo is doing at its plant in Silsbee, Texas.

In addition to being blended into gasoline, isobutanol can be used as a feedstock to produce isooctane, making actual hydrocarbon gasoline, Gruber said.

Isobutanol could provide the chemical industry an alternative source of isobutylene. 

Like other C4s, isobutylene is facing a structural shortage because US crackers are switching from oil-based naphtha to ethane, propane and other natural gas liquids (NGLs).

Lighter feedstocks produce predominantly ethylene at the expense of heavier olefins such as isobutylene.
Isobutanol-based production would compete against on-purpose isobutylene processes, which produce the material through the on-purpose dehydrogenation of isobutane.

Isobutanol could provide an alternative route to another petrochemical feedstock, paraxylene (PX), and Gevo is developing that technology at Silsbee.

Paraxylene, along with ethylene, are the two feedstock used to produce polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

PET is used to make plastic bottles for beverages. Companies are eager to find a way to make renewable PET. They can make renewable ethylene from ethanol, but the PX portion has remained a challenge.

Isobutanol-based PX could give beverage companies a way to make bottles from 100% renewable materials.

With its uses as a chemical feedstock, a raw material for jet fuel or a gasoline blendstock, isobutanol could give ethanol producers another use for their feedstock carbohydrates, giving them access to additional markets.

Gevo has already found one ethanol company interesting in an isobutanol plant.

Under a letter of intent, IGPC Ethanol could build an isobutanol plant using Gevo technology beside its 150m litre/year (39.6m gal/year) ethanol plant in Ontario, Canada.

Gruber said that Gevo has been getting other inquiries from the US and all over the world about using extra capacity to produce isobutanol.

Looking ahead, that capacity could grow. Several companies are developing new sources of sugars. Several are already developing ways to extract sugars from biomass using enzymes, acids and supercritical water.

Other companies are developing crops that can be a low-cost source of sugar. Proterro is developing microorganisms that can produce sugar.

If these technologies do create an abundance of sugars, then ethanol producers could be eager to branch out beyond ethanol.

"Ethanol is a really good product," Gruber said. "It has made a huge difference. However, products like isobutanol have the potential to change the game of what is possible." 

By Al Greenwood