Pacific Rim Summit — Biobutanol: Overcoming the Barriers

Biofuels & Climate Change

The biobutanol panel at the 2009 Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy had three dynamic speakers from the biobutanol industry: Pat Gruber, CEO of Gevo, Inc.; Jay Kouba, CEO of Tetravitae Bioscience and Rick Wilson, CEO of Cobalt Technologies. Besides the individual company presentations the conversation concentrated on technology, risk, barriers and financing on the path to commercialization.

Jay Kouba related to the audience that the business plan with the best technology is often not the one that makes it to commercialization; the path to commercialization is often paved by the plans with the lowest barriers to commercialization.

Pat Gruber of Gevo started the session off by giving background on his company, Gevo Inc., founded in 2005. Gevo’s biobutanol plans center around retrofitting corn ethanol plants to produce isobutanol. The main thing Gevo is concerned with is access to cheap feedstock, they will make their fuel out of whatever is most economically viable, currently sugarcane and grain, but eventually cellulosic feedstocks will be used. Gevo has a 1 million gallon demonstration plant in St. Joseph, Mo. Gevo also has business plans for renewable gasoline, jet fuel and isobutylene for use in such products as rubbers and plastics. These molecules will serve as building blocks for the chemical industry and they are beneficial, because the chemical industry already knows what to do with them. Gevo plans to have a commercial plant (20-50 million gallons per year) operating in 2011.

Tetravitae will be focusing on the chemical industry for their butanol to take advantage of what they see as a weak point in the petrochemical web. They are focusing on finding a low capital route that they can get to market quickly and follow up with improvements, and they see many opportunities with biobutanol for chemicals. Tetravitae will be using a similar business plan to Gevo in retrofitting corn dry mill plants for production. Tetravitae has partnered with the University of Illinois to develop the organism they are using. Mr. Kouba said that their process is already cost competitive and they are planning on having a demonstration facility operating in 2010 and a commercial facility up and running in 2011.

Rick Wilson’s company, Cobalt Technologies, is focusing on commercializing their cellulosic butanol for fuels and chemicals business. The big question for them was, “What’s going to make the biggest difference and be the most cost effective cellulosic biofuel on the market?” The answer was biobutanol. According to Mr. Wilson, the advantage of this renewable fuel is that 15 billion gallons is mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard, it has an estimated 70 to 90 percent reduction in lifecycle assessment in greenhouse gases versus petroleum, increases fuel efficiency, lowers tailpipe emissions and is compatible with existing fuel infrastructure. Cobalt Technologies is interested in a venture with high margins that requires low capital investments. Rick made the observation that the most important cost for them is the price of the feedstock. Cobalt currently has pilot plants constructed in Colorado and California with a 200,000 gallon per year facility planned for operation in 2011 and a 15 million gallon per year facility planned for 2013.

All of the speakers agreed that access to capital is a barrier to commercialization, and education for the public, the regulatory community and opinion leaders such as Members of Congress on the benefits and technological attributes of biobutanol is a priority. Lively discussion and debate followed during the question and answer portion of the session. Stay tuned as biobutanol moves forward into commercialization for fuels and chemicals.

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