The future of biofuels from corn could be determined by the work done at a single ethanol plant in Luverne, Minn. At the Agri-Energy location, open since 1998, a change in ownership and direction is bringing a new opportunity to the facility that could revolutionize ethanol plants across the country.
"I headed the farmer group that started this plant back in 1995," says Dave Kolsrud, president, Dak Renewable Energy. "As a farmer-owned ethanol plant it has been extremely successful, but we had taken the plant as far as it could go. We were looking for the next step."
When Kolsrud talks about going as far as they could, the Agri-Enegy facility opened its doors as a 12-million gallon plant back in 1995. Today, the same facility produces 22 million gallons a year with a team of workers that really knows how to get every ounce of ethanol from a bushel of corn. So where could they go? The answer is Gevo, a six-year old company looking at the creation of a next-generation biofuel called isobutanol.
"We've teamed up with ICM to operate a 1 million gallong per year demonstration facility at their ethanol demo unit in St. Joseph, Mo., for some time," says David Glassner, executive vice president of technology, Gevo. "Luverne will be the first commercial scale plant to produce isobutanol from corn."
Lining up the right details
Isobutanol is actually produced when ethanol is made, but but in very small quantities and is considered a byproduct in that process. What Gevo has done is pioneer the development of yeast that turns cornstarch into isobutanol instead of ethanol. The process also requires the plant to add recovery equipment to continuously capture the isobutanol during fermendation, but Glassner says the operating cost is the same as making ethanol.
"Moving to commercial scale production is different than just making the lab bigger," Glassner says. "There are a lot of factors that we'll be dealing with when we bring the equipment online."
A key asset to this process will be the team of employees at Agri-Energy. "The staff here knows how to get the most production from a bushel of corn," Kolsrud says. "They'll be working on this project and they're excited because they see this as the future."
Isobutanol offers some key benefits (see related story) that will allow the plant to improve its profit picture above that of ethanol too.
Moving in new markets
"When the plant is up and running we'll get about 80% of the amount of isobutanol than we do ethanol, but we'll be extracting 100% of the nergy in that corn kernel," Glassner says. "Although the volume of isobutanol in gallons will be lower than ethanol, the total BTUs will be the same because of butanol's greater energy content." Initially, the isobutanol produced in Luverne will go to the lucrative solvents market, but there's potential for a range of uses.
The isobutanol market is a fledgling business, but already another big player is looking at the potential - DuPont and BP have teamed up to explore the market. The future for ethanol plants may not be in ethanol, but in new compounds from corn that offer marketing benefits. "The business is evolving," Kolsrud says.
Isobutanol - a versatile product
Isobutanol can be used in a number of ways. First, it can be added directly to gasoline just like ethanol, but because of its different properties, the chemical can be added at the refinery and pipelined with the gasoline to the terminal. This is a benefit to the petroleum industry.
Isobutanol can be sold into the market as it is, or broken into components called butenes, or olefins, which have a wide range of uses. Gevo has an agreement with United Airlines to develop jet fuel using butenes. The firm is working to line up a refining partner for that product now.
Currently the price of a gallon of ethanol is about $2.60, for petroleum-derived isobutanol the per-gallon price is $4.50 to $6. While the plant may only see 80% of the output of ethanol, the financial implications are clear.