Friday, July 30, 2010

Gevo Turning Cellulose into Fuels, Plastics, Clothing, etc.


Renewable chemicals company Gevo is now producing a range of products from biomass cellulose-derived sugars. These products include fuels usable as gasoline and diesel replacements, as well as jet fuel. Other high value products from biomass include plastics and clothing fiber materials. Gevo first ferments isobutanol from biomass (cellulose-derived sugars), then converts the isobutanol to other high value materials.
Gevo uses synthetic biology and metabolic engineering to develop biocatalysts (fermentation organisms) to make only isobutanol via fermentation at high concentrations—i.e., without the typical expression co-products. The initial generation biocatalyst operates on fermentable sugars from grain crops, sugar cane and sugar beets. Gevo has already produced renewable gasoline and jet fuel that meet or exceed all ASTM specifications.

The company is now developing a new generation of biocatalysts that can use the mixed sugars from biomass to produce cellulosic isobutanol.

To operate its fermentation at optimum conditions for the organism, and within the process conditions found in ethanol plants, Gevo developed a novel separation technology. The solution uses a process innovation for continuous separation of the isobutanol—which in high concentrations inhibits the growth of microorganisms—as it is produced.

...What’s new is the cost-effective production and purification of isobutanol from biomass. Gevo projects that the cash operating cost for its hydrocarbon fuel is competitive with $65 per barrel crude oil (without incentives).

Isobutanol can also be used directly as a gasoline blendstock and as a building block in the production of hydrocarbons found in petroleum-derived gasoline, jet and diesel fuels. _GCC

As Gevo improves its yields at all stages of its processes, the economics of Gevo's potential operations should become more clear. Biomass is not energy-dense, which means that pre-processing stages will need to be made cheap, light, and portable so as to go where the biomass is -- for purposes of densification of the energy resource. That will involve many small, local scale pre-processing plants -- some of them portable by truck or rail.

Preliminary products will then be shipped or piped to several regional processing plants for conversion into isobutanol and higher value products. A few more central plants may exist for more complex conversions and synthesis -- or chemical intermediates would be sold in bulk to other companies for final conversion in some special cases.

It is unclear how far into industrial production Gevo wants to go. The market exists for very large numbers of local pre-processing plants, and a significant number of regional processing plants.

Biomass can be derived from agricultural and forestry waste, and dedicated energy crops and fast growing trees. But the best prospect for high yield biomass at this time is micro-algae. Most of the problems preventing economic production of biodiesel from algae are not applicable to Gevo's process using algal biomass -- not algal oils.


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