US-based renewable fuels and chemicals manufacturer Gevo Inc has developed a proprietary, breakthrough catalytic process that transforms low-cost commercially available, or even waste by-product, renewable alcohols into renewable isoprene that would be expected to compete head-to-head on price with natural and petroleum-based chemical equivalents while reducing CO2 emissions.
Isoprene is predominantly used in the production of synthetic-based rubber. The market for isoprene is estimated to be approximately US$4 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 7% or greater driven by growth in the automotive sector.
Gevo recently developed a chemical-based catalytic process to convert low-value “fusel oils,” a mixture of alcohols that are byproducts from fermentation processes such as ethanol production, into renewable isoprene. Fusel oils from the ethanol industry alone equate to about 2.5 million tonnes of potential bio-based waste feedstock.
According to Dr. Patrick Gruber, CEO of Gevo, renewable, low-carbon, low-cost isoprene has been pursued by a lot of companies over the years without commercial success.
He adds, “Fermentation processes were always deemed to be too expensive to make isoprene directly. As it turns out, our catalytic chemistry team and engineers figured out how to make low-cost, renewable isoprene suitable for the market using a chemical catalyst that we apply to fusel oils, a mixed, renewable alcohol stream that is produced as a by-product or even as a waste during large industrial fermentations such as those in the ethanol industry.”
He also says that Gevo’s team was able to translate what it learned while developing renewable, sustainable jet fuel and isooctane, to enable other viable alcoholic feedstocks.
“I give credit to our catalytic chemistry team, led by Jonathan Smith, for this breakthrough. We expect to pursue a licensing strategy with this technology. Potential licensees could be ethanol producers that want to improve the profitability of their facilities, chemical plants that simply want cost competitive low-carbon isoprene, or even standalone businesses. This is the first time in my 30 years in this industry where I have seen what I believe to be a viable route to fully renewable, low-cost isoprene, “ he said.
Gruber also expects the technology to address a large current unmet need in the marketplace.