Legal fight over bio-based isobutanol production

By Joe Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

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Gevo and Butamax in legal battle over isobutanol
Two chemical companies are locked in an ongoing legal battle over the production of bio-based isobutanol, a substance used in the production of plastic bottles for soft drinks.

Gevo, which is helping Coca-Cola upgrade its PlantBottle to 100% renewable materials, claims its dispute with Butamax, a joint venture between DuPont and BP, began in December 2010.

The legal wrangle centres on the generation of isobutanol from biomass using modified microorganisms.

Conversion method

Isobutanol can be dehydrated to produce butenes, which are the building blocks for packaging materials such as propylene, xylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and offer an alternative to current petroleum-based substances.

Alternatively, according to Butamax isobutanol can be converted into paraxylene (PX), a core component of PET bottles, possibly requiring investment in new process equipment. PX can then be converted to PET using existing equipment.

Butamax and Gevo have filed patents with the US Patent and Trademark Office for their bio-based isobutanol-generating process, which both allege the other party has infringed.

The Butamax ‘188 and ‘889 patents and Gevo’s ‘375 and ‘376 patents are set for trial in April 2013 in Delaware.

Additional infringement lawsuits based on Butamax's '162 and '328 patents and Gevo's '808, '715, '415 and '404 patents will be heard in July 2014.

Trial dates to resolve disputes based on Butamax's '017 and '878 patents and Gevo's '089 patent have not yet been assigned.

The focus of the dispute

Gevo's technology, developed in 2007, uses engineered yeast to produce 90% isobutanol. It claims its intellectual property (IP) rights protect the key modifications necessary to enable this process.

Brett Lund, executive vice president and general counsel of Gevo, told “Without access to this IP, a competitor such as Butamax will be unable to produce isobutanol at commercially relevant levels.

“Based on Butamax's own publications, we are confident that Butamax is infringing upon Gevo's patents.”

butamax logo

Butamax claims its patents, developed in 2005, cover the fundamental pathway for making bio isobutanol through microorganisms that have been modified to include an engineered isobutanol biosynthetic pathway.

The firm said its patent portfolio also protects all aspects of the production of biobutanol, a biofuel used to produce bio-isobutanol among other substances.

Paul Beckwith, CEO of Butamax, told this site: “We pioneered fermentative production of isobutanol through an engineered biosynthetic pathway in recombinant microorganisms – by definition this innovation does not exist in nature. 

“We have various patents to this technology which demonstrates that our technology does not exist naturally.”

Production started

Gevo is currently converting existing ethanol plants into biofuel plants, such as their site in Luverne, Minnesota which began producing bio isobutanol in June.

Coca-Cola selected Gevo among other firms last year to take their PlantBottle from 30% renewably sourced material to 100% by creating renewable para-xylene from plant-based isobutanol.

When asked if they would be willing to avoid court proceedings if an alternative was found, Lund said: “Gevo would of course be willing to resolve this dispute on appropriate terms.”

Beckwith said: “Our goal whether through court proceedings or any other means is to protect our intellectual property portfolio so that we ensure the highest sustainable value for our customers."

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