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Gevo Begins Countdown to Ethanol's End

There have been two pops of at least 20% for industrial biotech in the last week -- both on the heels of expected news, nonetheless. Last week Codexis (NASDAQ: CDXS  ) announced that it successfully completed a demonstration facility in Italy for its CodeXol detergent alcohols with partner Chemtex. It is a step in the right direction, but more sustainable share movements will come with courting commercial partners. The two still have plenty of work to collect production metric data and move into commercial scale with a bigger partner.

The real news came this morning, when Gevo (NASDAQ: GEVO  )  announced that it had resumed commercial production of isobutanol at its Luverne biorefinery. The company had outlined its plans in prior conference calls, and its guidance earlier this year. But, given contamination obstacles at Luverne last summer, I suppose investors have reserved the right to remain cautious. Now that commercial production of isobutanol is finally happening, what exactly does this mean for investors?

The good news
This is tremendous news for Gevo in terms of further sticking it to its closest competitor, Butamax, a joint venture between DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) and BP (NYSE: BP  ) . Both have enjoyed big wins in court in 2013, but Gevo was the obvious winner. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also handed Gevo intellectual property surrounding the commercial-scale production of isobutanol, meaning Butamax will likely have to license at least that sliver of technology from Gevo. Today's news further cements the lead for Gevo, which was already two to three years ahead of its well-funded foe.

It doesn't look like much, but this is Gevo's flagship facility at Luverne. Photo courtesy of Gevo.

Additionally, this is actually the first time that Gevo has run its GIFT separation system at full-scale (due to alleged infringement by Butamax). Separation is a huge part of any industrial biotech platform. The more efficiently a company can separate its desired product from byproducts the more economical its total process. Separation technology doesn't get as much attention as reaching commercial scale, but without it margins can be dramatically affected.

The don't-hold-your-breath news
Gevo will continue to ramp up its production throughout 2013 and into 2014. That means that the company will gradually increase the liquid volumes of its bioreactors until Luverne produces nameplate capacity, or 18 million gallons per year. This process usually takes 12-18 months, but Luverne is currently only using one production train. The others will be brought on line before the end of the year. Obviously, full ramp-up cannot start until each train is on line.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What the heck is a production train? A production train is all of the equipment upstream -- media holding tanks, buffer tanks, microbial seed trains -- and downstream -- separation unit, product holding tank, sanitizer holding tanks -- that supports the operation of a bioreactor. Efficient facilities are built to share some production equipment across bioreactors, although the scheduling has to be perfect.

Foolish bottom line
All in all, this is great news for Gevo. Beginning commercial production with the GIFT separation unit brings the company one big step closer to having commercial quantities of sellable product. It will also demonstrate to the ethanol industry that higher-value isobutanol is just a retrofit away. That is huge, especially since domestic ethanol capacity is already well above the limit for gasoline blending. Gevo could convert 1 billion gallons of ethanol production -- the amount of extra capacity today -- into about 820 million gallons of isobutanol production. Of course, that is still years away. But this is the first step toward that reality, which I believe is very achievable. You may want to wait for shares to cool off, although, at a market cap under $100 million, I don't see much downside for long-term investors.

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Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly mentioned that Codexis CEO John Nicols sold about 8% of his company shares. Nicols had 70,463 vested shares withheld for tax liabilities and no shares were sold on the open market by Nicols or Codexis. The Motley Fool regrets this error.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 5:50 PM, nomofunfun wrote:

    Gevo is a small morsel for a superior-managed and cash-rich company like DuPont is gobble up, like Andre the Giant gobbling up a gumdrop. Even if Gevo does become the blind squirrel that finds an acorn, it will like be a small subsidiary of DuPont before long. Gobble up Gevo shares, if you like, but expect that DuPont will swallow this minnow if it gets close to being successful.

  • Report this Comment On June 18, 2013, at 10:58 PM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    Once again the cumbersome, lumbering DuPont bureaucracy with its subjugated Butamax venture falls behind as GEVO gears up for full commercialisation of its isobutanol.

    Hmmmmm...what ever happened to that magic bug which was supposed to eat corn cobs and spit out huge profitable quantities of DuPont corn cob "gasoline"? That magic bug was cited with much fanfare by DuPont Chieftess Ellen Kullman and her TEAM as a big reason to over-bid $7 billion for Danisco, Danish maker of industrial enzymes and food additives in 2012.


  • Report this Comment On August 20, 2014, at 11:08 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    Well production progress has not occurred as originally envisioned by the company, which is now dangerously cash-strapped. It also appears to have greatly lowered butanol production expectations. How quickly things can change!

    Of course, that doesn't change the fact that butanol remains a superior fuel to ethanol. Imagine if the nation's ethanol capacity was converted to butanol? It will happen one day, but the question is who will make it happen? Gevo? Butamax? Cobalt (not isobutanol)? Green Biologics (not isobutanol, yet)?


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