At Gevo, we build our entire business around sustainability. That’s the whole principle behind our new Net-Zero 1 plant that we’re building in Lake Preston, South Dakota, where we expect to create energy-dense liquid hydrocarbons through processes that are sustainable.
That’s always been our starting point, but it’s really become one aspect of a circular economy that has always been our touchstone, that informs everything we do.
If we consider everything people need, sustainability follows naturally.
Gevo Will Leave Fossil Carbon Out of Our Fuels
Think about that word, sustainable, and you will realize, as we have, that it represents an ever-changing, evolving idea. The bones of it are there in a fuel that emits net-zero greenhouse gases over the entire lifecycle of the product. But so much more has been attached to it, as we think about the truly important factors for sustainability. After all, making transportation fuel that stores and grants access to renewable energy is a huge help, but there’s more to life than just transportation. Fossil fuels store energy but they were stored tidily away in the earth’s crust, where the impact of the carbon was little felt due to greenhouse gases. But when the world takes that petroleum out of the ground and burns it, the world’s engines become a firehose of carbon, pumping the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases. Science tells us the amount of carbon in the atmosphere causes global warming, and eventually climate change.
Our fuels fundamentally use carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere as a key component. The millions of corn plants that grow to well over six feet tall use it to grow through photosynthesis. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere and converted into a healthy biomass that manages to store vast quantities of carbon in grain, stalks, leaves, roots, and soil. And when our fuels are burned and the carbon is released into the atmosphere, that’s carbon from the plants. In fact, the total amount of carbon dioxide corn can assimilate from the atmosphere using an average yield of 180 bushels/acre can exceed 34,000 pounds per acre (according to this report from Michigan State University)!
Gevo Leaves Out Waste and Puts Value-Added Protein into the Food Chain
Food is key to sustainability. The problem is malnutrition. The solution? Nutrition. Protein is a key ingredient for nutrition and a significant component of corn. In fact, a typical acre of yellow dent corn can produce over a thousand pounds of protein. Gevo’s process intends to capture this nutrient in a high-protein feed to be used by animal nutritionists to create more efficient formulations for livestock, aquaculture and pet food. Given the volumes of corn grown, the potential to deliver high-protein nutritional products from corn is significant. Yellow dent corn makes up 99% of the corn produced in the US. In 2020, about 92 million acres of this corn was grown in the United States. For clarity, this is not the same as the sweet corn, which is the type we all enjoy on the cob or in our favorite dishes. In comparison, only about 406 thousand acres of sweet corn were planted in 2020. In addition, we also capture nutritional value from the corn oil we plan to recover. Finally, the residual starch gets converted through our process to sustainable aviation fuel or renewable premium gasoline, comprised of carbon that started as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Gevo’s Business System Leaves Carbon Out of the Atmosphere and Plans to Build Up Carbon in the Soil
As we work with partner farmers, we will encourage them to use regenerative agriculture practices, which builds organic matter in the soil, increases soil productivity, and ultimately allows the soil to be part of our solution for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Some farmers use microbe-based soil amendments or plant probiotics to increase the size and impact of the root structure of every corn stalk. These farmers also employ techniques that minimize the impact on the soil, including low-till and no-till techniques that only disturb the soil in a narrow strip where the seed is placed. The result of all these techniques is that more bushels of corn are produced per acre, and the acreage is also sequestering more carbon in the soil. We see a future where the farmers use microbe-based soil amendments to increase the size and impact of the root structure of every corn stalk. Currently the use of low till, no-till, and other conservation tilling on US cropland is estimated to sequester 52 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year. While significant, if no-till was applied to all US croplands it was estimated that a total of 123 million metric tons of carbon could be sequestered annually (according to this study from Purdue University). In addition, enhancing the soil with microbes or plant probiotics has the potential to further increase soil organic carbon capture by as much as several tons of CO2 per acre! With these practices and new technology, growers and are helping to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and leave it out!
After all, a huge part of sustainability comes down to being good neighbors. We take that seriously too. We expect to pay a premium price to the farmers in our area who grow their corn the way we like, because those techniques further improve the sustainability of all our products. Plus, it’s just good business. We believe in helping the rural economies to thrive and grow, which helps people to have a better quality of life.
Gevo Leaves Pollution Out of the Water
Water is also considered a huge factor in sustainability, and we all need to pay attention to that, too. The ongoing cycle that allows the world population to have clean water is considered by many to be under threat and we’re paying attention. We’re directly addressing the water use under our purview by encouraging farmers to use drain tiles and water management systems. Because the soil on their farmland changes when they’re using regenerative agriculture techniques, the timing and volume they need will also change. It’s only by actively managing the water flow across these vast stretches of acreage can farmers control soil erosion and nutrient loss. This also protects downstream areas from algae blooms suspected by some to be caused by runoff.
Gevo Will Generate its Own Biogas to Reduce and Eliminate Fossil-Based Natural Gas from the System
Another key aspect of our process at Net-Zero 1 will be innovation in water management. In fact, the sugary agriculture residues contained in the water from our plant will be used to produce biogas. This biogas is expected to be produced in significant enough volume that we can eliminate fossil based natural gas. In addition we expect to be able to produce some electrity from extra biogas using cogeneration otherwise known as combined heat and power (CHP). There’s still another byproduct of this onsite water-treatment facility: Water, of course, that’s clean and ready to be brought back into our plant at the front end, reducing our impact on our local aquifer.
Gevo Will Leave Out the Carbon of the Power Grid
One of the major issues in sustainability is the dirty electricity from the grid. In the US about 60 percent of electricity is fossil based. At Gevo, we want renewable electricity. To do our part in creating it, we plan on building a wind farm to generate renewable electricity with partners. This wind farm would be wired directly to the plant and essentially get us “off the grid.”
Gevo Will Leave the Carbon Out of Production, and Make Green Hydrogen
We need a small amount of hydrogen in our production process. But our perspective is this: the world needs more green hydrogen. Too much is fossil-based directly or indirectly. Since we’ll have excess electricity, we plan on making green hydrogen for our own use, but we see there is a benefit to others too as the hydrogen economy develops. We’d like to see the hydrogen economy develop, and we plan on how to participate in that too. After all, we will be green hydrogen producers.
Gevo Leaves Out the Chemicals that Fossil Fuels Can’t
When oil companies pump petroleum out of the ground, it needs to be refined into a usable form, whether it’s jet fuel, or gasoline, or diesel fuel. That refining stage is an energy-intensive process that makes the fuels suitable transportation fuel. Even with this refining, they still carry some chemicals that don’t do anything to propel us down the road or across the sky. These chemicals get spewed into our atmosphere as fossil fuels are burned, along with substantial amounts of particulates. Some of these chemicals are thought to be carcinogens. All of it is bad for the health of people and that’s not sustainable.
At Gevo, our fuels are built up, not refined down. We create our drop-in biofuels from isobutanol that we make from residual starch, with our proprietary yeast, while delivering critically needed products like high-protein feed and corn oil to deliver meet the growing demand for sustainable nutrition and renewable energy. It’s far more sustainable than unleashing chemicals into the atmosphere where it can pollute our air, water, and our bodies. In fact, our sustainable aviation fuel will not need to be refined and we expect it will enter the delivery infrastructure without the additional energy and transportation and storage and time this step requires.
All in all, sustainability is about eliminating the bad stuff, such as fossil carbon and pollution, and keeping the good parts, like renewable energy and carbon sequestered in the soil, all while being the best neighbors we can.