The processing steps. (Via Gevo)
Plans to mass-produce biofuels from corn have seen many draw backs with some fearing significant greenhouse gas emission and worries of tapping into food supplies. Ethanol is an example of these fears surfacing, barring the widespread adoption of the alternative fuel. A new biofuel company, Gevo, wants to apply the same fuel making process to non-food (wood, grass), "cellulosic materials."
Gevo has received millions from the U.S. government to focus on using grasses and wood chips to produce biofuels, which promise more renewability and availability. However, the process to convert these alternative cellulosic materials into biofuels is expensive and to make this process monetarily advantageous would require construction of massive refineries to mass-produce these fuels. Cellulosic material supply chains have not been developed and has not been widely proven or applied mostly due to a lack of a clear market. The combination of all these factors has deterred investors, hindering R&D of fuels from cellulosic materials.
In response, Gevo has announced their plans to change their business from manufacturing alternative organic material fuels to producing other chemicals from corn.
They are starting by retrofitting existing ethanol production equipment to save money against building new refineries. Their first renovation will be their plant in Luverne, Minnesota that will cost $40 million, much much less than a new plant. Gevo will also focus on producing butanol which sells for more than ethanol and can be used to make a wide range of chemicals and plastics. Butanol is conventionally made from petroleum but can be made from corn and it can also be used in small and marine engines where ethanol cannot.
Additionally, Gevo announced a partnership with Coca-Cola to produce bottles made entirely from grown plant materials. Their Minnesota renovation will produce 17 million gallons of butanol a year. Part of the butanol will be allocated to a partnership between Gevo and Sasol Chemical Industries, with another 11,000 gallons of butanol jet fuel has been set aside for a contract with the U.S. Air Force.
Their initial goal of transforming the energy industry to one that uses cellulosic renewables will have to wait, but Gevo is staying competitive finding new ways of using plants to replace the use of fossil fuels. There is no doubt that after time we will need to return to the future of biofuels in cellulosics. In the mean time, it seems renewables will have to pick their fights against the existing dirty oil machine.