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Gevo and ICM Ally to Commercialize Production of Butanols and Hydrocarbons From Retrofitted Ethanol Plants

Synthetic networks for non-fermentative alcohol production from glucose in engineered E. coli developed by Dr. Liao at UCLA and licensed by Gevo. The red arrows represent the two-step conversion (KDC/ADH) of 2-keto acids to alcohols. Click to enlarge. Adapted from Atsumi et al. 2008

Gevo, Inc. and ICM, Inc. have formed a strategic alliance for the commercial development of Gevo’s Integrated Fermentation Technology (GIFT) that enables the production of isobutanol and hydrocarbons from retrofitted ethanol plants.

Under terms of the agreement, Gevo’s demonstration plant will be located at ICM’s St. Joseph, Mo., biofuels research center. ICM will serve as the exclusive engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor for the retrofit of ethanol plants utilizing GIFT. Gevo will be ICM’s exclusive technology partner for the production of butanols, pentanols and propanols. Gevo says that the strategic alliance will reduce the time needed to reach commercial scale and provide a competitive advantage as Gevo executes its global development plans.

Gevo’s technology is innovative, yet very simple and a great way to create additional value for agricultural products. ICM is excited about the opportunity to work with Gevo in bringing renewable energy solutions to consumers worldwide. Over the years, ICM has proven its ability to bring alternative energy technologies from concept to creation. Our core strength of accelerating the commercialization of various products and processes has made a tremendous impact on the biofuels industry and we’re eager to join Gevo in building the next section of our bridge to energy independence with advanced biofuels technology

—Dave Vander Griend, founder and CEO of ICM, Inc.

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. Gevo’s technology enables the cost effective, practical production of renewable hydrocarbons such as isooctene and isooctane for the gasoline market, renewable jet fuel and renewable diesel blendstocks. In addition, Gevo’s technology enables the production of a wide variety of chemicals such as isobutylene and paraxylene from renewable resources.

Our data says that it will cost less than $0.30 per gallon to retrofit an ethanol plant to make isobutanol. Isobutanol can be converted to gasoline blendstocks for less than an additional $0.25 per gallon. Think of it: gasoline from an ethanol plant for less than $0.60/gallon additional capital. This technology is a win-win for both the agricultural and petrochemical industries. It opens up new and broader value-added markets to the agricultural community, and it provides the petrochemical industry with an easier route to incorporate renewable fuels and chemicals into their existing infrastructure.

—Dr. Patrick Gruber, CEO of Gevo, Inc.

Liao and his team were able to deliver up to 86% of the theoretical maximum yield of isobutanol from glucose via combinations of manipulations. Click to enlarge. Source: Atsumi et. al 2008

In December 2007, Gevo acquired an exclusive license for a method developed by Dr. James Liao at UCLA for modifying the metabolic pathway of E.coli bacteria for the non-fermentative synthesis of higher alcohols including isobutanol, 1-butanol, 2-methyl-1-butanol, 3-methyl-1-butanol and 2-phenylethanol from glucose. In particular, Liao achieved high-yield, high-specificity production of isobutanol from glucose. Dr. Liao is on Gevo’s scientific advisory board. (Earlier post.)

Liao and his team took the strategy of using the host’s active amino acid biosynthetic pathway and diverting its 2-Keto acid intermediates for alcohol synthesis. Although the researchers implemented their strategy in E. coli, they noted that other organisms such as S.cerevisiae (yeast) are also applicable.

2-Keto acids are intermediates in amino acid biosynthesis pathways. These metabolites can be converted to aldehydes by broad-substrate-range 2-keto-acid decarboxylases (KDCs) and then to alcohols by Alcohol dehydrogenases (ADHs). Using this strategy, only two non-native steps were needed to produce biofuels by shunting intermediates from amino acid biosynthesis pathways to alcohol production.

—Atsumi et al. (2008)

In their work, reported in a paper in the 3 January 2008 issue of the journal Nature, the researchers found that they could produce isobutanol with a yield of 0.35 g isobutanol per g glucose—86% of the theoretical maximum.

This advanced modification method will enable us to speed up the commercial introduction of advanced biofuels like butanol by several years. In addition, these efficient new pathways raise the possibility of retrofitting existing ethanol plants, at a low capital cost, to produce advanced biofuels. This helps to address one of the major issues in bringing an advanced biofuel to market—capital.

—Pat Gruber

ICM engineers, builds and supports ethanol plants and biorefineries. Proprietary ICM process technology is behind 5.1 billion gallons of ethanol production per year—more than half of North America’s current annual production.


  • Shota Atsumi, Taizo Hanai and James C. Liao (2008) Non-fermentative pathways for synthesis of branched-chain higher alcohols as biofuels. Nature 451, 86-89 doi: 10.1038/nature06450



Butanol is showing some surprising vigor. Surprising to me at least.

It will be interesting to learn how the economics plays out. What subsidies are in play or arise. And how much private capital is risked.

It will depend upon how well this process scales up.

ICM has concentrated on ethanol plant. And with new ethanol construction looking wobbly they no doubt wish to diversify.


These guys are moving fast:
2005 California Institute of Technology spin-off Gevo founded
2007 Gevo acquires license from UCLA
2008 strategic alliance with ICM
2009? Gevo’s demonstration plant will be located at ICM’s St. Joseph, Mo., biofuels research center.

"Think of it: gasoline from an ethanol plant for less than $0.60/gallon additional capital."
"Proprietary ICM process technology is behind 5.1 billion gallons of ethanol production per year"
If ICM can scale this up, and offer it as a retro-fit to its existing customers, it might make it easier to distribute and blend biofuel.
Consumers are more likely to accept an alternative fuel with energy density close to gasoline, but the offensive smell of butanol would be an issue.
Blends higher than 10% will be more practical too as butanol does not readily absorb water.

"Compared to ethanol, higher-chain alcohols have energy densities closer to gasoline, are not as volatile or corrosive, and do not readily absorb water."

No mention though of whether their process operates at very low dilution, like <2% alcohol in water , which would make distillation expensive.

"but the offensive smell of butanol would be an issue."

uh have you smelled gasoline its bad too, who cares what a fuel smells like your not sniffing your tank.modern vapor capture nozzles in use at clean air cities capture any vapors from fueling the consumer never has to smell venting vapors as the pumps start the vacuum before fuel is dispensed and stop after the fuel flow as stopped its negative pressure the whole time no vapor is vented.

Henry Gibson

n-Butanol is probably the best fuel for automobiles besides some very pure hydrocarbons. It can be stored for long periods of time and does not evaporate very fast. But since bio-butanol come from plants, it is not economically sustainable as a large volume fuel supply. ..HG..

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