Big River considers isobutanol production at its four facilities

By Holly Jessen | June 26, 2012

Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC’s early adopters group (EAG) is now made up of 11 ethanol production plants with total capacity of nearly 900 MMgy. Big River Resources LLC, which owns four ethanol plants in three states, officially joined the EAG June 26, meaning it is investigating the possibility of converting to isobutanol production, possibly at all four facilities. “We’re keeping all the options open,” Big River’s President and CEO Raymond Defenbaugh told EPM. “That’s part of this exploratory process. I wouldn’t say we are going into it planning on doing all four but we haven’t ruled it out.”

The news comes just more than a week after Butamax said four other ethanol plants had signed on to the EAG. 

Big River’s plants include:

* Big River Resources Boyceville LLC, Boyceville, Wis., 57 MMgy

* Big River Resources Galva LLC, Galva, Ill., 110 MMgy

* Big River Resources West Burlington LLC, West Burlington, Iowa, 105 MMgy

* Big River United Energy LLC, Dyersville, Iowa, 115 MMgy

The EAG now includes ethanol production facilities in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Iowa is at the top of the list, with six out of the eleven from that state. “Last December, we announced our EAG with the intention of building a membership representing half a billion gallons of production capacity by early 2013,” said Paul Beckwith, Butamax CEO, in a prepared statement. “We are pleased that the strong interest in Butamax technology has resulted in significantly exceeding that target nearly a year ahead of schedule.”

For Big River, the fact that Butamax is a joint venture of BP and DuPont “makes it more viable and more credible,” Defenbaugh said. The company’s collaboration agreement with Fagen Inc. is another good reason to get involved. “We’re strong Fagen supporters,” he said. 

The company’s interest in isobutanol is a matter of economics. Defenbaugh pointed to butanol’s 30 percent higher energy value when compared with ethanol and the fact that it may be more attractive to refiners. “That should translate into higher profits, ultimately, for our company,” he said.

One of the many reasons the ethanol industry was established in the first place was to improve the income of corn producers in rural America. That still happens, Defenbaugh said, whether a facility like Big River is producing ethanol or butanol. In addition, it is possible to produce butanol from other feedstocks, such as sugarcane. “It’s not limited to one region or one input,” he said.

Butamax is in the midst of a patent dispute with Gevo Inc., a company that expects to soon startup butanol production at a former ethanol plant in Luverne, Minn., and is working on engineering plans for the retrofit of a Redfield, S.D., plant. On June 19 a judge denied Butamax’s request for a preliminary injunction.  One trial is set for April and a second one is scheduled for December 2013.