Minn. ethanol plant converting to make isobutanol

LUVERNE, Minn. — A Colorado company plans to convert a Minnesota ethanol plant to make a different kind of alcohol: isobutanol.

Gevo Inc. of Englewood, Colo., hopes to begin isobutanol production in Luverne in about a year.

Jack Huttner, the company's executive vice president for corporate development and public affairs, told Minnesota Public Radio for a story aired Monday that while corn-based ethanol is used primarily as gasoline additive and substitute, isobutanol can be sold for other industrial purposes. It's used in making rubber, paints and other products. A few years down the road, he said, the company could also sell it as fuel.

Gevo acquired the plant in southwestern Minnesota from Agri-Energy LLC last September.

"When we talk about Luverne, we talk about being a world class chemical plant," Huttner said.


Very little isobutanol is now made from renewable ingredients; most of it is refined from oil. Gevo uses a patented yeast to ferment corn sugars into isobutanol instead of ethanol. Huttner said.

Gevo's main selling point is corn prices tend to fluctuate less rapidly than oil prices, which should mean lower and more stable prices for big users of isobutanol, Huttner said. Clients like that because it helps them project the future costs of their operations more accurately.

Gevo has another economic edge. It bought the 13-year-old Luverne plant for about half of what it would cost to build a similarly sized facility from scratch. While ethanol was posting robust profits five years ago, profit margins are thin today, and that makes it a good time to buy a plant, said Andrew Soare, an analyst for LUX Research, a renewable energy consulting and information company.

"Corn-based and traditional ethanol is a weak industry," Soare said. "And they are selling off assets, and ramping down production and idling plants."

Gevo may face the same sort of criticisms leveled against ethanol producers, largely that they waste corn, a food, by turning it into something inedible, Soare said. Other critics may say the process uses too much water.

And there could be technical hurdles as well.

Kansas State University chemical engineering professor Peter Pfromm said he's interested in whether Gevo can fulfill its claims when actual isobutanol production starts. He said the company makes about 1 million gallons of isobutanol a year at a test plant in St. Joseph, Mo., and scaling up the system to make 18 million gallons in Luverne as planned could be a challenge.

Pfromm said that's because genetically modified organisms, like Gevo's patented yeast, sometimes don't perform as well as advertised.


"What happens with a genetically modified organism is that they're less vigorous than a natural or a non-modified organism," Pfromm said.

Scientists don't know exactly why that is, he said. That means Gevo must keep its tanks and pipes as sterile as possible so that no other microorganisms grow and interfere with the yeast.

The MPR story can be found at:

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