Biobased Chemicals: Some growing pains
Gevo, a maker of bio-based isobutanol, is now actually making isobutanol. It says something that a publicly-traded company has been not making its commercial product for some months. The problem was a bug in the production system - technically a microbe - a microbe other than the one (a yeast) that was supposed to be making isobutanol.
I spoke with Gevo's CEO Pat Gruber yesterday at the BIO show in Montreal. He was rather forthright about what happened. First, they were running the plant at full scale with their own yeast and had their separation process running. They were producing truckloads of isobutanol. The facility had previously been an ethanol fermentation plant. With the new operating conditions, a dormant microbe sprang to life, contaminating the process. The product was still being made but the company decided to shut down the plant and decontaminate it.
"We had to identify the sources of the contaminant, change the pipes, sanitize the equipment, train the staff and modify the operating conditions to favor our yeast," Gruber recounted. He emphasized that these plants are not sterile like a pharma plant would be. Instead, vectors of contamination are controlled so they stay at very low levels.
When I wrote about biobased chemicals last summer, analysts held out Gevo as an example of a success story. It was shortly after the story ran that Gevo stopped its process at its Luverne, Minn. plant due to problems with contamination. The episode shows the kind of growing pains that the industry and its followers are learning to anticipate and accept.
Other companies might face different kinds of growing pains - for Gevo there was what is called technical risk. Other firms are making chemicals such as biosuccinic acid. They also face a market risk because for most applications their product is not a drop in raw material, so downstream customers must adopt it.
This year is the tenth anniversary of the World Congress for Industrial Technology. Historically, it seems to take about a decade for a new chemical concept to reach commercialization, and then some more time to penetrate new markets. This makes 2013 a very interesting year for the biobased chemical industry.