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Is Renewable Gasoline a Solution for Boating?

Will renewable fuels made from corn ease the pain at the gas dock? This Minnesota-based company is banking on it.

Something is brewing—literally, with yeast—in the agricultural heartland of rural America, from Luverne, Minnesota to Lake Preston, South Dakota to northwestern Iowa. Here, carbon-neutral gasoline, jet fuel and diesel are being produced on a scale of hundreds of thousands of gallons valued well north of $1 billion.

These sustainable fuel sources aren’t some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. They’re drop-in ready for internal combustion engines and the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure that powers them, from gas station pumps to commercial airliners to the boats we love. Best of all, these biofuels emit zero particulates, sulfur and nitrogen, thereby reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases.

Gevo’s plant in Luverne, Minnesota, is situated among cornfields, which makes sense, since it was originally designed as an ethanol plant. It’s been modified to produce isobutanol.

Gevo’s plant in Luverne, Minnesota, is situated among cornfields, which makes sense, since it was originally designed as an ethanol plant. It’s been modified to produce isobutanol.

Gevo, based in Englewood, Colorado, is one of the leading producers of energy-dense liquid hydrocarbons and renewable chemicals in the U.S. “We are on a crusade to solve the greenhouse gas and transportation problem,” says Dr. Patrick Gruber, co-founder, board member and CEO of Gevo. “We know we can solve it.”

Gruber holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota and has a storied curriculum vitae that includes the invention of a compostable plastic cup with green bands likely used in a café near you. (His Twitter bio reads: “Jeeps, scuba, golf, fishing. Doing what I can to help save the world.”) He co-founded Gevo in 2007 to produce biofuels with patented yeast strains and organic matter, namely corn.

Of course, the growing electric revolution and the potential of hydrogen fuel cells might make these biofuels immediately obsolete. Yet it’s not so easy. The problem is, measuring only exhaust emissions is not a true and accurate representation of the overall environmental impact. Electric vehicles and boats don’t produce emissions directly, but they still rely on electricity from the grid, which in the U.S. gets 60 percent of its power from fossil-fuel sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

CEO Dr. Patrick Gruber

CEO Dr. Patrick Gruber

So, at least for the foreseeable future, the world will be dependent on fuel. That’s where Gevo’s biofuels come into play. The basic premise of these alternate fuel sources starts with corn that is sourced as a carbohydrate, i.e., carbon bonded to hydrogen. Then, a brew is begun with the corn and the patented yeast to create simple alcohols related to the desired fuel, such as isobutanol (a building block compound of Gevo’s aviation fuel). This fermentation process connects hydrocarbons together by adding more hydrogen.

Once these alcohols are created, a chemical process strips the remaining oxygen and then puts the necessary amount of chain links together to create the desired fuel. Gasoline has a carbon chain length of eight, jet fuel 12 and diesel 18.

“Conceptually, it’s incredibly simple,” says Gruber. “Learning how to do it in a practical sense took a lot of effort.”

03_Circular Economy graphic

Gevo’s “circular economy” at work. For example, biofuel production does not use the entire kernel of corn that is the primary feedstock for their isobutanol plant. The left-over protein is turned into animal feed, which in turn creates an additional revenue stream for the company, offsetting the cost of producing the fuel.

Despite almost being sued out of existence by PetroMax, a joint venture between multinational titans BP and DuPont, Gevo has succeeded in its goal of bringing carbon-neutral fuel to market. Notable successes include partnering with Alaska Airlines and inking a 10-million-gallon deal with Delta Airlines in 2019. According to Gevo, if an airline were to replace 20 percent of its fuel consumption out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with alternate Gevo fuel for one year, it would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by about 142,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of taking 30,000 passenger vehicles off the road annually. What would such a move mean for boating?

The main challenges preventing boaters from filling up with renewable fuel are market forces and public policy. The fully optimized fossil-fuel industry receives generous legacy subsidies that make it challenging for newcomers like Gevo to make an impact. However, in states like Washington, Oregon and California, which have green value benefits such as tax credits or financial cost burdens for emissions creators, Gevo is competitive.

“The marine industry is also segregated,” explains Gruber. Up until now, most of Gevo’s existing track record has been primarily with the aviation industry, in part because it’s centralized. It’s also safe to imagine that alternative energy sources, such as electric and hydrogen power, will enter into aviation last, due to the myriad demands of flight (longer distances, higher speeds, etc.) on batteries. In the shorter term, real financial penalties for carbon pollution, such as in the European Union, incentivize airlines to make the switch to more eco-friendly fuels.

“For boats, they are going to get held accountable for their carbon emissions. That’s in the tea leaves; it’s coming,” says Gruber. “Carbon benefits need to be available for boats.”

“This is about trying to get CO2 emissions down, leveraging what exists, and getting it done sooner rather than later,” he continues. He sees opportunities in the boating sector, notably aboard large center consoles.

“When you see the market demand for how boats are being powered, they are going to these outboard motors. Good, I want to optimize a fuel for [them]. I’ll bet you we can get those running better and going further per tank of gas. I bet we can get some fuel efficiency increases.”

He pauses, and then confirms: “We’re working on that.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.