Gevo, Inc. has announced the start up of the first bio butanol demonstration plant.  The new facility is designed from retrofitting an existing demonstration scale ethanol plant to produce the bio butanol. In successfully producing bio butanol at the one million gallon per year rate at a pilot plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, Gevo is demonstrating the viability of its technology for retrofitting existing ethanol plants to make bio butanol.

Gevo Butanol Pilot Facility

Gevo Butanol Pilot Facility

Quick refresh, bio butanol, the C4 alcohol, can be blended directly into gasoline and be used to make renewable hydrocarbons such as diesel and jet fuel, chemical intermediates and bio based plastics.

Gevo’s retrofit of the pilot plant was completed in less than three months.  Gevo claims in its press release the successful retrofit also represents the first step along the route to produce cellulosic biobutanol, which will be possible once biomass conversion technology becomes commercially available.

Next up Gevo will be working Wall Street looking for financing to go out and buy up to five ethanol plants to retrofit.  In another press release, Gevo announced the formation of Gevo Development, LLC to finance and develop retrofit projects.  According to Gevo spokesman Jack Huttner, Gevo is the majority owner of Gevo Development.  Gevo Development is to be managed by Mike Slaney and David Black, men who have significant experience in the financing, acquisition and operation of ethanol facilities. As managing directors of Gevo Development, they bring the skills and expertise Gevo needs to finance a rapid deployment of its bio refinery technology to produce butanol and hydrocarbons for the fuels and chemicals industry.

According to Huttner, Gevo Development is already currently working to procure a facility and has begun the process of raising money to finance the retrofit. He said the company could begin work on its first commercial-scale facility within six months.

So ‘why’ is the question for many with so much ethanol, the C2 alcohol, already making such headway?  Both can be used as a gasoline additive. But bio butanol has some clear advantages. There is no blend wall such as ethanol’s 10% limit in gasoline. Bio butanol is approved to get to 16% today – and Gevo, which is backed by investors including Khosla Ventures, Burrill & Co. and Total SA – says that “standard automotive engines can run on biobutanol blended into gasoline at any ratio.”

That’s a fact – bio butanol could fully displace gasoline and change the engineering dynamics with much higher compression ratios – from its native high octane rating.  Bio butanol has higher energy content than ethanol and a lower Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) – which means lower volatility and evaporative emissions. Importantly, standard automobiles and all those small engines can run on biobutanol blended into gasoline at any ratio.

Another advantage is bio butanol can be put into pipelines and refineries without problems. When ethanol runs through a pipeline it works kind of like a cleaner and sweeping up a lot of unwanted gunk as well as absorbing water.

On the money front the ethanol makers are trapped between the proverbial rock and the hard place of corn prices and gasoline prices. Gevo bio butanol can take multiple feedstocks (corn, stover, sugar cane) and critically can sell its output as either a gasoline additive or as a chemical feedstock to make things like plastic bottles.

Others major players are excited about biobutanol, including Butamax, the joint venture between BP and DuPont working in the UK.

The question still holding is the “commercial scale” matter.  The Gevo demonstration-scale plant in Missouri has an annual capacity of about 1 million gallons and no one knows if this is an ‘economic at scale’ model.

Undeterred, Gevo CEO Pat Gruber says, “When applied at commercial scale, this technology can give ethanol plants a new future. Retrofitting existing plants represents a quick and cost-efficient way to get to advanced biofuels. We congratulate the team in St. Joseph for their success in commissioning the plant and look forward to working with ethanol producers to convert existing plants to butanol.”

This is the first time that an existing ethanol operation has been successfully retrofitted to produce biobutanol instead of ethanol. The ICM pilot plant at St. Joseph had been designed and constructed as a reduced scale replica of a dry-milled ethanol production process.

The ICM people seem happy.  Dave Vander Griend, President and CEO of ICM said, “It was a pleasure working with Gevo’s team at our pilot plant in St. Joseph. Gevo’s biobutanol retrofit technology is an exciting option for ethanol producers looking to expand their routes to produce advanced biofuels and renewable chemical products.”

Gevo and ICM have established an exclusive arrangement to provide engineering solutions for the development of butanol and other related isomers at North American facilities that utilized dry milled corn and grain sorghum feedstocks. This has to cheer up the corn production segment of the ethanol industry with corn profits gone with the collapse of crude oil prices.

A quick perusing of the media and even blogs shows a noticeable level of doubt.  With the major questions still out there, such as the energy recovered from the feedstock, operating energy requirements and others, there is room for skepticism.  But the focus is on the commercial scale issue, which from practical sense seems answered.  The real concern is from the operations expense and  cost for the inputs vs. the income from the product.

I’d say the new Gevo Development leaders have their hands full.  A lot more data needs explored about the economics.  It really isn’t a surprise that bio butanol can be done commercially, but how do those economics work?  Is the Gevo process going to get more or less of the carbon from the feedstock?  Will there be more or less energy demand compared to ethanol?  These are the questions of the day.

Its very much a congratulatory point in renewable fuel history, a mark which allows the existing fleet to use an alternative fuel with no change and the future fleet to use even more optimized engineering to make use of the bio butanol attributes.

Ethanol has a huge head start, but the technology to retrofit offers a locked asset another means to pay its way.  Ethanol always has been a fuel with a future more akin to the other light fuels where the fuel cell is more optimal than internal combustion.

Now the industry has a choice.  And consumers do too.  That’s the very best possible outcome.


9 Comments so far

  1. Susan Kishner on October 8, 2009 1:24 AM

    Hello. I was reading someone else’s blog and saw you on their blogroll. Would you be interested in exchanging blog roll links? If so, feel free to email me.


  2. Takchess on October 8, 2009 4:39 AM

    This is in keeping with Khosla statements that without corn ethanol other biofuel would not of been invested in.

    I haven’t heard the mileage figures in a typical car of a Biob vs Gas. Do you know?

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  5. Butyl Dude on March 14, 2010 9:34 AM


    The mileage for a car on gas and on butanol is basically the same. This was proven in a 1992 Buick with no modifications and using only 100% butanol.

    However, while going across the desert the car ran cooler. When going up Mt. Palomar, the across The Grape Vine north of Los Angles the butanol made the car behave like it had diesel in it. It did not heal over as gasoline does. I saw about 5% better mileage performance throughout the trip.

    The only problem with biobutanol is no one is producing it on a large scale and the Gevo work mentioned above is a great step forward to seeing Butanol in your tank.

    Well Done..Gevo..well done

  6. Keith on March 28, 2010 1:43 PM

    Very interesting comments but why use Food Crops? The obvious issue is that we must use Non-Food Crops and Wastes to make Butanol. To mee it looks as though Macro-Algae from farmed sources as currently under experiment in Israel is the simplest route as there are no competing sources for the use of material. And if as I hear that the yield material contains as you would expect no Lignin (expected) and that the main bulk is Cellulose then it must be a winner. I am not sure where the Universities are coming from though. In the Algae business most seem to be looking at Miceo-Algae and that would in preference be the Lipid and Oil developments.

  7. Karel on June 1, 2010 5:21 AM

    I like this idea being developed in Israel, and I note that this company with another is shortly to build a major plant together to make Bioethanol from non-food based biomass in the Mediterranean country. In this it seems that they could be offering the Macro-Algae as a means to absorb the GHG CO2 from a local power station there.
    Sounds like joined up thinking

  8. Charlie Rheo on June 16, 2010 2:25 PM

    BioButanol is very exciting. Do you know of other development in biobutanol other than active developments by DuPont/BP, Cobalt, Gevo, and Imperial? I would like to include those on my website

    Thank you,

  9. CNA Training on November 8, 2010 7:14 AM

    I think one of your advertisements caused my internet browser to resize, you might want to put that on your blacklist.

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