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Gevo Produces Isobutanol, Hydrocarbons and Renewable Jet Fuel from Cellulosic Biomass

Gevo’s production process. Click to enlarge.

Gevo, a privately held renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company (earlier post), has successfully produced isobutanol from fermentable sugars derived from cellulosic biomass. The company also successfully converted the cellulosic isobutanol into isobutylene and paraffinic kerosene (jet fuel).

The production of isobutanol from cellulosic biomass is the subject of a previously announced $1.8 million award from the US Department of Energy and Agriculture’s Biomass R&D Program. The grant supports the ongoing development of a cellulosic biocatalyst that Gevo exclusively licensed from Cargill.

Gevo uses synthetic biology and metabolic engineering to develop biocatalysts (fermentation organisms) to make only isobutanol via fermentation at high concentrations—i.e., without the typical expression co-products. The initial generation biocatalyst operates on fermentable sugars from grain crops, sugar cane and sugar beets. Gevo has already produced renewable gasoline and jet fuel that meet or exceed all ASTM specifications.

The company is now developing a new generation of biocatalysts that can use the mixed sugars from biomass to produce cellulosic isobutanol.

To operate its fermentation at optimum conditions for the organism, and within the process conditions found in ethanol plants, Gevo developed a novel separation technology. The solution uses a process innovation for continuous separation of the isobutanol—which in high concentrations inhibits the growth of microorganisms—as it is produced.

Today’s announcement demonstrates Gevo’s progress in making its biocatalyst viable for use in cellulosic biorefineries. As the cellulosic ethanol industry becomes operational, companies could have the option to produce isobutanol instead of ethanol.

—Dr. Patrick Gruber, CEO of Gevo

Isobutanol is a four-carbon alcohol that can function as a “drop-in” platform chemical with broad applications in the product of approximately 40% of petrochemicals and 100% of hydrocarbon fuels. It can be used directly for a solvent and can be dehydrated with known processes into isobutylene, a raw material for plastics and fiber. Gevo believes its isobutanol will provide a route to the renewable production of rubber, polypropylene, polystyrene, and PET.

High-level process schematic for hydrocarbons from isobutanol. Source: Gevo. Click to enlarge.

Hydrocarbon fuels from biomass via isobutanol. The chemistry to convert isobutanol to a variety of hydrocarbon fuels molecules is simple and well known—the dehydration of isobutanol to isobutylene and the subsequent oligomerization of isobutylene to hydrocarbon fuels. Isobutylene oligomerization is practiced in refineries today on a mixed olefin stream. The process technology for converting isobutanol to hydrocarbons is low-energy input and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 85.%

Fuels from isobutanol. Source: Gevo. Click to enlarge.

What’s new is the cost-effective production and purification of isobutanol from biomass. Gevo projects that the cash operating cost for its hydrocarbon fuel is competitive with $65 per barrel crude oil (without incentives).

Isobutanol can also be used directly as a gasoline blendstock and as a building block in the production of hydrocarbons found in petroleum-derived gasoline, jet and diesel fuels.

Gevo was founded in 2005 by Drs. Frances Arnold, Matthew Peters and Peter Meinhold of the California Institute of Technology. The company is focused on the development of advanced biofuels and renewable chemicals based on isobutanol and its derivatives using engineered microbes.

In 2009, oil and gas major Total has invested an undisclosed amount in Gevo’s series D financing round. (Earlier post.)




This is a very interest solution for USA's continued liquid fuel shortage. At $65/barrel, it may not be as cheap as most conventional crude oil but being cleaner it could be a winner when fuels are taxed on GHG total created. Secondly, an importation fee of $0.54/gallon (or more for fossil crude) on all imported fuel (like duties currently applied on imported ethanol) could help local production and reduce imports.


I think butanol is a HUGE win as it can literally be used to replace gasoline on a 1 to 1 basis because it has essentially the same energy content as gasoline and can be used in the same engines and pipelines/infrastructure with no change. Ethanol can claim none of these advantages.

So this is always great news. However, I don't remotely believe the $65 a barrel with no subsidies.

If that is true, they would have a $billion worth of investment lined up to fund them out before they could even finish reading the press release.

I'm not blaming them because all these companies make claims like this and so now they all have ZERO credibility.

Anyway, good luck to them, I hope they make it.


OPEC can easily drop oil prices if they see substitution. They have done it before and will do it again in a blink.


But then if the so-called peak-oilers are right, how can prices drop?


The moment there is an alternative for fossil fuel and there is a 'green excuse' for western protectionism, the west can easily raise CO2-taxes on fossil fuel.

On the other hand, OPEC is even more addicted to oil-money than the west is addicted to oil, and that difference is only going to increase. We have many alternatives in the running for oil. They have almost none for oil-money. Dropping the price of oil to 60$ just like that, is like increasing income-taxes with 20% just like that.

Just like we walked into our oil-addiction with our eyes wide open, simply because of the political reality, OPEC is killing the world's oil-addiction prematurely because of their political reality.
Once our alternatives will be mature and will have the benifit of scale and mature technology, their oil will be completely worthless, and their political reality will be dramatically different (and dangerous).

if the so-called peak-oilers are right
If you think we have not already hit peak oil, please explain why oil production was roughly flat from 2005-2008 while prices soared.
OPEC can easily drop oil prices if they see substitution.
To do this, they would need enough excess production capacity to flood the market. There's good reason to believe that their claimed excess capacity doesn't exist. China might take advantage of any price decrease to increase its reserves, turning its currency hoards into resources.
We have many alternatives in the running for oil.
Many of them cited here.

Unfortunately, most big changes are projected to be a decade in the making. To use Glenn Reynolds' catchphrase: faster, please.


Oil price is no longer a question of supply and demand since OPEC decided to fix prices and production level in mid-1970's.

It is fair to say that many oil producing countries have become addicted and dependent on Oil $$$. Their economy would fail quickly if oil price or oil shipment fall. Unfortunately, many other economies would fall with them because Oil $$$ are mostly recycled.

Fortunately, fossil fuel replacement will be progressive and producers will have time to adapt but them may have to stop building 160 stories structures.

The best thing that could happen to USA would be to switch from imported fossil fuels to locally produced substitutes, even if it cost more. Competition could be maintained with extra carbon or import taxes of crude Oil and high enough subsidies on substitutes. Fuels made from local wastes could have a higher priority. Why not use all garbage to produce some of the essential liquid fuels and clean up the local environment at the same time?


Most generally follow the idea of supply/demand/price. A drop in price does not necessarily mean an increase in supply. All it takes is for oil to come down in price for substitutes to be "out of the money". This preserves their market, which is the idea.



In broadstrokes you're right the Middle East will take a hit when oil's time is past. However, they have had hundreds of billions of dollars to invest and play with, and you will see them in many facets of life for a long time, especially in Air Travel.


The Saudis hold hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds. We will be paying them long after they go back to riding camels.


Once we stop needing the Saudis we can recognize their religious imperialism as a declaration of war and just cancel any bonds they hold.


How about China?


This process is yet another addition to the liquid fuels solutions coming from biomass and waste. Together, along with scaled up processing of algal biomass, cellulosic alcohols ARE a real and viable alternative to fossil fuels.

The tax structure can help with the transition simply by raising import taxes on fossils and eliminating or crediting taxes on renewables.

With the ongoing selloff of big oil assets (BP, Shell) we are already seeing the undoing of energy monopolies. However a primary caution should be given to the investment by cash rich investors in North American electrical energy structures. Oil money will gravitate to electric power production and distribution via "smart grids." This will repeat the oilco's take over of energy in the 1920s.

Electrical energy MUST be diversified and distributed off-grid if we are to avoid a new energy monopoly. This is readily accomplished by distributed energy technology and regulation of centralized power production. Home Combined Heat and Power systems will guarantee North Americans avoid new big energy cartels using the grid to corner markets.


If you default on bonds, good luck trying to sell more.


Reel$$ has a good point. There's nothing to stop oil $$$B from going over to electricity production an distribution. It will possibly happened during the next decade or two. If is not properly regulated it could become ugly by 2030/2040.

Distributed (domestic) production is a possibility but lower cost solar panels and storage batteries are required. Domestic NG power units may not be sustainable due to limited (8.6 years in USA) NG reserves.

Large Nuclear, Sun and Wind (and cleaner coal) power plants may be more competitive for the near/mid term future. Both centralized and distributed systems could co-exist to reduce impact of larger monopolies. Selective taxation could play a role, specially to promote domestic production.

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