Midwestern farmers now have another commercial energy market for corn besides ethanol. It’s called biobutanol, a type of butanol that is produced from grain and/or other biomass feedstock sources, and a product that has many more industrial uses than ethanol.

“Bio-based isobutanol production at our Luverne, Minn., plant this summer was a first for the world,” says Chris Ryan, president and chief operating officer of Gevo, Inc. “It’s the first time bio-based isobutanol has been commercialized. It’s also the first time that an ethanol plant has been repurposed to produce a very different, higher-value product. It represents an entirely new market for farm products and an entire new use of an ethanol plant.”

Gevo began to retrofit its Luverne ethanol plant to produce bio-based isobutanol using its proprietary yeast and fuel separation technology in May 2011. It began commercial isobutanol production in July 2012.

“Isobutanol is a high-grade, high-value form of butanol,” Ryan says. “Isobutanol itself has a large market in the paints and coatings industry, but the bio-based isobutanol that we make at Luverne can be easily converted into butene, and butene is used to make plastics, synthetic rubber and jet fuel, among other products. Some of our customers are Sasol, a chemical company, the U.S. Air Force for jet fuel, and The Coca-Cola Company… for water and soda bottles.”

Versatile, efficient fuel

Biobutanol is also an efficient and convenient fuel to transport to market, says Chad Hart, Iowa State University agricultural economist.

“A big issue with ethanol is that it’s corrosive, and you can’t run it through the same pipelines as gasoline, but with biobutanol, you can,” Hart says. “As a result, biobutanol can grow the market more easily for corn, with more industries than ethanol.”

Fuel manufacturers have many good reasons to buy bio-based isobutanol, Ryan notes. “One advantage is that they can blend it with different parts of a barrel of oil, especially the low-cost components of the barrel, which they couldn’t readily use with ethanol,” he points out. “Another advantage is that we can produce our bio-based isobutanol at a lower cost than oil-based butanol.”

Multiple markets

Gevo plans to continue to refine its isobutanol production plant in Minnesota and then begin to repurpose other ethanol plants elsewhere in the Midwest to produce isobutanol, Ryan says. “The isobutanol production from our Luverne plant has already been sold out,” he says. “We are expecting to reach full capacity by the end of next year. We also recently signed a joint venture agreement with Redfield Energy, LLC, to begin retrofitting a second ethanol plant to produce isobutanol in Redfield, S.D.”

Gevo’s strategy is to eventually serve multiple markets in various parts of the world with different biofuel feedstocks to better manage risk than it could with grain feedstocks only. “We want to maintain flexibility in using low-cost feedstocks in any region that produces biofuel,” Ryan says. “We are already partnering with companies that have expertise in converting biomass to sugars, including companies that have expertise in cellulosic ethanol production…with anything from corn stover and prairie grasses to trees and palm oil, depending on the location of the production plant.”