July 19, 2007 5:00 AM PDT

Gevo: From paint thinner to jet fuel

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Gevo, a California Institute of Technology spinoff dedicated to making biofuels, on Thursday said it has gained funding from Virgin Fuels, the renewable fuels division of the Virgin conglomerate.

The company also named Patrick Gruber, the former chief technology officer at Cargill, its CEO. Gruber originally started the project at Cargill to make corn-based plastic, called polylactic acid.

The amount of the Series B investment from Virgin Fuels was not disclosed. Khosla Ventures, headed by high-profile investor and biofuels advocate Vinod Khosla, was the initial investor.

Gevo intends to create a biofuel called butanol from different types of biomass, including sugar cane, corn byproducts and grasses, Gruber said. Its bioprocessing technology uses fermentation to convert plants to alcohol-based fuels.

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Initially, the company intends to make butanol variants for automobiles, trucks and jets using the same basic technologies. It will explore other "advanced biofuels" as well, such as isobutanol, Gruber said.

Most money invested in biofuels has been targeted at ethanol. But butanol, which today is often used as a paint thinner, can be produced as a fuel with certain advantages, advocates say.

Butanol has a higher energy density than ethanol, but it does not absorb water, which means it can be effectively distributed through pipelines, Gruber said.

On the other hand, ethanol enjoys more political support and has at least some distribution network established, he conceded.

"No, the market is not developed for butanol, and there are many issues that need to be addressed," Gruber said. But "there are clearly niches where butanol can completely displace gasoline."

Virgin Fuels, part of the Virgin travel and retail giant, was founded last year to invest $400 million in cleaner sources of energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Through Virgin Fuels, we look for investments in companies--such as Gevo--that will help to significantly reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, improve management of scarce resources, and have a long-term positive impact on our society," Virgin founder Richard Branson said in a statement.

The investment will be used to further develop Gevo's technology. Having Virgin Fuels as an investor gives the company insight into fuel needs at Virgin, which operates both Virgin Airlines and Virgin Trains, Gruber said.


Correction: This article incorrectly described an aspect of butanol. The fuel can be effectively distributed through pipelines.

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Correct your article.
The way the article is written, it sounds like butanol can not be put in pipelines. It can be. It is ethanol that can not be put in pipelines.
Posted by willdryden (271 comments )
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There was a typo. Correction is already done.
Posted by mlamonica (330 comments )
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Good - avoid the pitfalls of the past
It is good to see additional fuels potentially coming on-line. Dependence on a single fuel source is what got us in the position we are in the Middle East et al - and at the fuel pump.
Posted by missingamerica (6147 comments )
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We agree on something!

Actually, we could be using many alternative power sources right now, except that various people pretending to be environmentalists shot down most of them. See if you can dig out some old Popular Mechanic magazines from the 50's and 60's, this was covered extensively, then PM changed editorial direction and became useless even for butt wipe. They've improved, but still have a long way to go to recover the credibility they had back then.
Posted by Phillep_H (497 comments )
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