Now we’ve got ourselves a ballgame. Butamax Advanced Biofuels―DuPont’s isobutanol joint venture with BP―says it expects (generally speaking) to begin converting ethanol plants to isobutanol production in 2013, after spending 2012 discussing design with early adopters. The company announced last week it had signed a letter of intent with Highwater Ethanol for conversion of its 50 million gals/year Lamberton, MN ethanol plant, but hadn’t provided a timeline.More details may be available after DuPont’s investor meeting on the 13th.
The year has been dominated by Butamax’s competitor Gevo, which went public, announced two retrofits (that will begin operating in 2012), signed some big supply contracts, and (according to Butamax), is doing it all by infringing Butamax patents.
Both Gevo and Butamax seemed to claim a victory last week after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) responded to an earlier Gevo request that two Butamax patents covering isobutanol production methods be reexamined and found invalid.
According to Butamax, the USPTO granted only “limited reexamination” of one of two Butamax patents Gevo requested be reexamined earlier this year.Since 95% of USPTO reexamination requests are granted, denial of the ‘188 patent “demonstrates the strength of the patent and Butamax’s clear position as the true innovator of biobutanol production technology.” The reaffirmed patent is “foundational”, and since the second is a continuation of ‘188, Butamax is confident it will be upheld as well, Butamax says.
Butamax says a hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction against Gevo is scheduled for early 2012. The outcome of the dispute could be a make-or-break moment, given isobutanol’s promising outlook. The four-carbon molecule can be sold directly in the marketplace as a solvent and a gasoline blendstock, or it can be converted into butenes, the precursors for 40% of all petrochemicals and 100% of all hydrocarbon fuels. Application development work is well underway. Toray has produced 100% renewable polyethylene terephthalate using para-xylene derived from isobutanol, and Lanxess is looking at the chemical to supplement falling isobutene supply in North America. Higher isobutanol content in gasoline even allows refiners to use more natural gas liquids (which is the one resource we are not short of thanks to shale). Is there anything isobutanol doesn’t do?