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More ethanol plants might switch to isobutanol production
Jun 18, 2012 (Star Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Copyright (C) 2012, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

A THIRD MINNESOTA ETHANOL PLANT -- along with two in Iowa and one in Nebraska -- might be among the next to switch production to a new biofuel call isobutanol.

Butamax Advanced Biofuels of Wilmington, Del., one of two companies competing to commercialize the technology, said Monday that it has signed up four more ethanol plants for potential conversion to isobutanol.

The latest plants in what Butamax calls its "early adopters group" are Granite Falls Energy of Granite Falls, Minn.; Platinum Ethanol of Arthur, Iowa, which is owned by Minnesota-based Fagen Inc.; Little Sioux Corn Processors of Marcus, Iowa, and Siouxland Ethanol of Jackson, Neb.

Highwater Ethanol of Lamberton, Minn., announced its interest in isobutanol conversion in December. No firm timetable for the conversions has been announced.

So far only one plant -- in Luverne, Minn. -- owned by isobutanol competitor Gevo of Englewood, Colo., has converted from ethanol production to the new biofuel. Gevo also plans other conversions, including one in South Dakota.

Isobutanol, which is an alcohol like ethanol, can be mixed with gasoline as a motor fuel, can be used to make plastics and various chemical products and is being tested as a jet fuel. It has advantages over ethanol, including greater energy content.

The announcement comes at a time of financial challenge for the ethanol industry. Five of six ethanol makers with plants in Minnesota that publicly report their financial results lost money in the most recent quarter, including Highwater ethanol. The Granite Falls plant's profits fell, although it still made money.

It also comes as Gevo and Butamax, a joint venture of BP and DuPont, are fighting a wide-ranging patent dispute in U.S. District Court in Delaware. Each company has alleged the other is infringing on patents related to genetically engineered yeast used to ferment isobutanol. Last week, a federal judge temporarily ordered Gevo to stop adding customers, a condition Gevo said will not be a problem for the company because its initial production is already sold.

All of the plants announced Monday by Butamax were built by Fagen Inc., an engineering and construction firm in Granite Falls, that has built many U.S. ethanol plants. Butamax recently announced a deal with Fagen to retrofit ethanol facilities to biobutanol production.

"Biobutanol is an exciting next step in the evolution of biofuels and presents a significant opportunity for companies such as ours to produce and market a higher-value product and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Ron Fagen, owner of Platinum Ethanol LLC and Chairman of Fagen, said in a statement released by Butamax.

David Shaffer -- 612-673-7090


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