Virgin Fuels, Khosla Ventures bet on Gevo

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Patrick Gruber, the new CEO of Gevo, can talk at length about how biofuel butanol could one day replace gasoline and jet fuel. But when it comes to disclosing the size of the series B round the biofuel startup announced this morning from new investor Virgin Fuels and return-backer Khosla Ventures, mum’s the word. Update: VentureWire puts the investment at $10 million.

The company has been pretty quiet about its moves over the past few months until a regulatory filing disclosed Khosla Ventures had backed the company. Though, here’s what we do know. Developed at Caltech and now based in Pasadena, California, Gevo’s technology converts biomass into next-gen biofuels like butanol. And Gruber tells us that the new funds will be used to continue to develop the technology, which likely won’t be ready for market for a few years down the road.

Butanol, when used as a fuel, is more similar to gasoline than ethanol. Like ethanol, butanol is an alcohol compound, but with four carbon atoms instead of two. The different chemical structure could make it possible for butanol to be transported using existing fuel supply infrastructure.

Gevo’s competition at the moment comes from BP and DuPont, which teamed up last year to produce butanol. Gruber isn’t concerned, apparently:

“I don’t know exactly what they’re doing. There’s enough latitude here that multiple companies can do their own thing and be successful. But we’re out to play to win in the long run.”

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Jim Beyer

What is the energy cost to synthesize butanol from biomass? It’s bound to be costlier than ethanol, which is already too costly. It’s all fine and good to make a fuel that’s more convenient to use, but if a good deal of the feedstock gets used up in its production, the overall cost will be problematic, as will the availability of biomass itself.

More than twice as much fuel (energetically) can be obtained from biomass in the form of methane compared with can be obtained as ethanol. (Yes, this includes cellulosic ethanol.) Butanol is going to be much worse.

At best, our domestic biomass can only provide about 10% of our energy needs anyway, so we shouldn’t be wasting what we do have synthesizing a complex fuel that will be even more expensive than ethanol!

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