The first of a new breed of biofuel plants began production in Minnesota this week.

Gevo Inc. said it completed the $40 million conversion of an ethanol plant in Luverne, Minn., and began feeding corn kernels into grinders and then into a patented fermentation process.

It is the world's first commercial-scale plant to produce bio-based isobutanol, an alcohol that can be added to motor fuel like ethanol or be processed into other speciality chemicals.

Patrick Gruber, CEO of the Englewood, Colo.-based company, said it has taken less than five years to take the technology from the lab into commercial production.

"In history, to my knowledge, nothing has ever been done that fast at this scale," Gruber said in an interview. "It does seem like a mighty long drudge at the moment, but it is pretty darn fast."

Gruber said the first drops of isobutanol should flow from the plant by the beginning or middle of July. He said the first shipments, and much of the early production, will go to Sasol, a South African chemical company that has signed a long-term purchase agreement.

Over the next year, Gevo employees in Luverne will work on optimizing the process, he said. So far, the commercialization effort has encountered no major setbacks, and has hit every milestone, he added.

He said any new process is certain to face challenges, but that the Luverne workers bring years of ethanol-making experience and he is confident they can address any issues.

"You can't always predict what will happen -- it is part of the learning curve," he said.

Ethanol production has ended at the plant, though it still has that capability.

Gevo's second project, a joint venture to convert an ethanol plant in Redmond, S.D., is scheduled to begin next year. The company also has said it has a third project in the wings, but has not announced details.

At Luverne, Gevo expects to produce about 1 million gallons of isobutanol per month by the end of the year and reach full capacity of 18 million gallons per year by the end of 2013.

Isobutanol can be blended with gasoline, and scientists say it has many advantages, packing more energy than ethanol. Gevo plans to sell it as a motor fuel, though not initially in Minnesota because of a restrictive state law.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090