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Virgin Fuels Joins Khosla for Second Round in Bio-Butanol Company

Virgin Fuels has joined founding investor Khosla Ventures in a Series B venture round for Gevo, Inc., a spinoff from Caltech, targeting the production of bio-butanol and other advanced biofuels from a variety of biomass feedstocks.

With the funding, Patrick Gruber has joined Gevo as CEO. Gruber was a founder and CTO of Cargill Dow/NatureWorks LLC, the first company to develop and successfully commercialize the renewable resource-based PLA (Polylactic Acid) to replace petrochemical plastics. At Cargill, Gruber conceived and tested the manufacturing process for the production of PLA from corn.

Gevo is based upon technology developed at the California Institute of Technology by Gevo founders Frances Arnold, Matthew Peters, and Peter Meinhold. The company, co-founded with Khosla Ventures, began with the focus of converting methane into methanol. A year into the company, the team decided to apply the technology to the production of butanol from cellulose.

At Caltech, the founders apply a variety of genetic engineering techniques and directed evolution design methods to enzymes, metabolic pathways, genetic circuits and ecosystems with the goal of generating novel enzymes and organisms for applications in medicine and in alternative energy.

Gevo has exclusively licensed technology in the field of biofuels developed in the labs of Frances Arnold at Caltech and other prominent labs.

Gevo aims to represent not only a step toward true energy diversity for the country, but yet another cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels. Major credit should be given to the founders of Gevo and the Caltech team for their groundbreaking work with biological systems toward new developments in alternative energy.

—Vinod Khosla



John Schreiber

This is the correct track for liquid transportation fuels.
Best of luck to them!

Robert Rapier

I made butanol for years. I have a patent in this area. Here is a reality check:

The Problem With Biobutanol

I have a soft spot for butanol because of my background, but the hope for what biobutanol can accomplish has gotten completely out of touch with where the technology is today. This is not much different than believing commercial Mars travel is right around the corner - it just needs a bit more funding.

When one of Khosla's biofuels ventures actually turns a profit, let me know.

R-Squared Energy Blog


RR: I'm curious. Have you ever printed an optimistic blog? Just wondering, because it seams that everyone around the oil drum is about ready to slit their wrists in despair.

Robert Rapier

"Have you ever printed an optimistic blog?"

Funny you should mention that, because I have been attacked quite often by some TOD readers for being too optimistic about the future. I don't believe oil has peaked. I am not a doomer. You just haven't read enough.

I have written a lot on what we should be doing, what I am doing, what is working, technologies that really appear to have potential, etc. But I also spend time addressing hype, hypocrisy, and unreasonable expectations. And if you look at my recent predictions post, I do have a pretty good track record of knowing which way the wind blows in the energy industry.

Cheers, RR


RR: I guess optimism is relative. TOD is heavily populated by some very negative people. I've read more of your stuff on TOD, I'm not sure I'd call your list of predictions exactly rosy. I would agree that you are certainly not in the doomer category. If there isn't one more cycle (low probability) then certainly we're looking at peak lite. I would consider peak lite a good thing in that it will push us towards electrification of transport with less pain than peak heavy. There have been some pretty amazing advances in battery tech over the last couple of years.

If TOD gets too depressing you can always spend more time over here where it's more about solutions (and listening to the rants of the odd crazy).


Robert Rapier,

While I appreciate your methodical analysis, I think you bet against innovation at your peril. You correctly identify the challenges, which is a necessary first step, but there seem to be a range of possible answers announced each month

1. Cell inhibition at greater than 1% Butanol in broth and high distillation energy requirements.
You identify that Butanol is 8% soluble in water. We can put a layer of oil or solvent on the top, and cause perhaps 92% of the butanol to float to the top...potentially allowing the broth to hold 12.5% butanol, non-homogenized. This also may allow us to skim butanol and reduce the distillation needs. Ramey identified a 2-step process that produces primarily Butyric Acid and Hydrogen in step one, and doubles total butanol output. Others have combined this with pyrolysis of the lignin and estimate combined EROIE 8-12x. Molecular sieves are improving and in some instances reduce distillation energy requirements 40%. Catalysts for creating ethanol from syngas seem to improve yields and reduce energy requirements as well.

Yes, there are too many steps for cellulosic Butanol production today. But, this is an immature space with many opportunities for optimizing the organisms, thermochemical processes, catalysts, and total system engineering that it is improbable we won't see an order of magnitude improvement in the next 5 years.

Robert Rapier

"You identify that Butanol is 8% soluble in water. We can put a layer of oil or solvent on the top, and cause perhaps 92% of the butanol to float to the top...potentially allowing the broth to hold 12.5% butanol, non-homogenized."

There has been a lot of research in this area, but nobody has been able to pull it off. Remember, lots of butanol is made from petrochemicals, so it would greatly benefit them to come up with such a technology. Currently, aqueous streams containing 3% butanol are disposed of.

Cheers, RR

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