Betting on Biobutanol and Battling Butamax: A Conversation with Gevo’s General Counsel

September 11th, 2013 by Eric Lane Leave a reply »

 

One of the biggest green patent stories in the last few years has been the burgeoning biobutanol battle between Gevo and BP-DuPont joint venture Butamax Advanced Biofuels.

As with other industries, clean tech companies engage in PR around their patent matters, and this patent litigation is no different.  Part of this green patent war has been fought through PR. 

So when I was offered the opportunity to speak with Brett Lund, Gevo’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, about this litigation I jumped at the chance.

For starters, this is a very important battle.  The email offer to interview Mr. Lund noted that it’s the “first-ever litigation in the industry of advanced biofuels, and it’s not just one patent – it’s a patent war over who can make isobutanol.”

Lund echoed this point, telling me there are just two main players for isobutanol (there is something called n-butanol, but it’s a less desirable fuel). 

Isobutanol is a very good petroleum substitute and the “ideal molecule” for both fuels and chemicals.  A a water insoluble 4-carbon molecule, it doesn’t get diluted and can be put in pipelines and directly into a refinery.

 Our conversation got into some of the details of the patents initially asserted by Butamax – U.S. Patent Nos. 7,993,889 (’889 Patent) and  7,851,188 (’188 Patent). 

Lund said the patents relate to a naturally occurring isobutanol pathway that has “been around forever.”  Known for over 50 years, Lund told me this 5-step pathway can be used to make very small quantities of isobutanol for things like sake or beer, but it’s hard to produce in large quantities suitable for fuel use.

Gevo’s patents, on the other hand, relate to new, non-naturally occurring pathways that boost isobutanol production.

Lund and I also discussed Gevo’s counterclaims for infringement of U.S. Patent Nos. 8,017,375 (’375 Patent) and 8,017,376 (’376 Patent), directed to recombinant yeast that harbor a variety of genetic modifications helpful for isobutanol production.

While Gevo believes that Butamax’s design-arounds of the ’375 and ’376 Patents are covered under the doctrine of equivalents (DOE), a recent court decision held otherwise, granting Butamax’s motion of summary judgment that it does not infringe the patents, literally or under the DOE.

When asked why the proactive PR, Lund noted that Gevo is a public company with lots of investors and partners and “we want people to know the truth.”  He went on to say that Gevo highly regards patents and patent law.

With respect to Butamax’s patentsand applications, he told me Gevo knows about them, actively monitors them, and continues to be careful and cognizant not to use Butamax’s technology.

This important green patent war is likely to continue in the courtroom and the media.

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