Gevo works to change law
LUVERNE -- The world's first isobutanol plant is anticipated to go online in late June in Luverne, but unless the state legislature takes action to amend Minnesota law, the product produced by Gevo won't be available to businesses and consumers in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
David Kolsrud, founder of Agri-Energy, an ethanol production facility that was sold to Denver, Colo.-based Gevo in September 2010, said it's rather ironic that Minnesota, among the first in the nation to require ethanol blending, is now one of only two states without laws to accept biofuels other than ethanol for blending with gasoline. Florida is the other state, but it is working to change its laws.
"All of our laws say ethanol is the only thing that can be mixed in motor fuels," Kolsrud said. "Almost all of the other states say ethanol or biofuels. We're working hard to get that legislation changed or adapted so that it would include isobutanol or any other biofuel that is produced here."
Kolsrud said the proposed legislation is in conference committee at this point, and he is hopeful it will be decided this week. Failure to amend the existing legislation, he said, will stifle innovation and technology in the state.
"We were innovative with ethanol, why aren't we innovative with other biofuels?" he added.
Leading the innovation
On Friday, Gevo hosted 10 students and two professors from the University of Minnesota's bioproducts and bioengineering systems club. It's the third year students from the U of M have traveled to Luverne to view the biofuels facility. Kolsrud organized the first tour three years ago for students to "learn more about what we're doing in Minnesota with creating our own energy."
The Agri-Energy partners contribute $1,000 to the university to fund the group's travel to Luverne.
"Seeing is believing," Kolsrud said. "Getting them down here to see what's happening really inspires the students. It also integrates what they're learning in the classroom to what is actually happening out in the field."
Darryl Nelson, Gevo product manager/engineer, said it's beneficial to take students through the plant because they can see the vast array of expertise and experience needed to work in a biofuels plant. He told students that knowledge in biology, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering will help them in the industry.
Among the students taking part in the tour was Christina Gleich, a Fargo, N.D., native and freshman at the U of M. She hopes one day to work in a biofuels-related profession.
"I don't want us to use so much petroleum -- I want to help find a substitute for it," Gleich said. "I'm thinking about working in a lab, but I'm open to anything. I would love to be in the renewable energy field."
What she learned most from touring the Gevo plant was the amount of work that has taken place to convert the ethanol plant into a processing facility for isobutanol.
Matt Domski, a U of M senior and Woodbury native, made his third visit to the biofuels plant at Luverne on Friday.
He'd visited twice before with the bioproducts and bioengineering systems group.
"It's interesting to see the complexity --the retrofit and how the process has changed," Domski said. "The last couple of years we only saw the ethanol fermentation (process)."
On this visit, he and fellow students saw the GIFT (Gevo Integrated Fermentation Technology) system.
"I think what's very interesting is seeing the new markets for isobutanol," Domski said. "It's exciting to see the breadth of products that can be created with a petroleum substitute."
In addition to touring Gevo, the students visited the Minwind Energy site near Beaver Creek, toured the EROS Data facility near Brandon, S.D., and spent time at a Rock County farm.
"They get to drive farm machinery around, see the technology on these modern-day farms ... and we talk about corn production, feed stock and corn stover's role in the future," Kolsrud said. "We also talk about growing specialty crops for fuel."
Poised for the future
The transformation of the Agri-Energy ethanol plant into Gevo's isobutanol plant began in the summer of 2011, and though it isn't quite ready to begin production, Kolsrud said talks have already begun on a possible joint venture in Redfield, S.D., to convert another ethanol plant to isobutanol production.
Gevo hopes to have 350 million gallons of isobutanol production online by 2015, with the Luverne operation producing 18 million gallons of the renewable fuel.
While blending isobutanol with motor fuels would produce the greatest market for the product, Kolsrud said other markets range from solvents and plastics to renewable jet fuel.
Gevo has already registered the fuel with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for blending with gasoline at 12.5 percent.
The Luverne facility will utilize eight million bushels of corn annually -- the same as it had as an ethanol production plant.
"It's about a third of the corn that's raised in the county," Kolsrud said. "All the DDGs (dried distillers grains) get fed locally as high-protein feed."
Agri-Energy opened in Luverne in 1995, with approximately 180 ethanol plants constructed after it, Kolsrud said.
"It was a small plant that was very well run, but we just couldn't take it any further," Kolsrud said. "We were a small fish in a big pond."
The sale to Gevo meant local farmers would still have a viable plant in their hometown and a market for their corn.
"We have some of the best employees in the business," Kolsrud said. "To utilize their talent, it was ideal to have them working on the next big thing.
"We don't need to rely on East Coast, West Coast people for our future -- we can just do it for ourselves. We're just getting started, in my opinion," he added. "The feed stock is here, the talent is here -- the will to do things is here."
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.