Utilising carbon capture technology in the biochemicals industry


Carbon capture and storage is revolutionising the way we think about achieving the UN’s net zero emissions target, and is being adopted by many heavy industries. Michael Nelson has been finding out about how carbon can be also utilised to provide other useful products.

The release of carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the main drivers of global warming, and an issue which more industries are attempting to address to meet set targets for net zero emissions.

One solution that is gathering pace in terms of investment and application in heavy industry settings is carbon capture technology. Using various methods of extraction, including absorption, chemical looping, membrane gas separation or gas hydrate technologies, CO2 can be captured directly from an industrial source. It is then stored in vast underground geological formations, ensuring that large amounts of CO2 are prevented from entering the atmosphere, significantly limiting climate change as a result.

Alternatives to storing the captured CO2 are emerging, however, with the aim of using it to instead produce various chemicals that are used in manufacturing. Cemvita Factory is one such CO2 utilisation company who applies synthetic biology to convert carbon into useful chemicals. Genetically engineered microbes, or microorganisms, feed on the CO2 during this process, and the industrial chemicals which are produced are often the same as those which are made or bought by the industry the carbon capture technology is employed at.

Similar technology has already been used in the pharmaceutical industry, which feeds sugar to microbes to make different chemicals used in biofuels, but Cemvita Factory are pioneering their use in carbon utilisation. Unlike electrochemical or other methods of serialisation, their system is biological which means it has the flexibility to work with different sources of CO2, such as direct air capture, flue gas, or biogenic CO2 from fermentation.

“In the plants that we are building, we use photosynthetic microorganisms, so basically, they could use light as a source of energy,” Moji Karimi, co-founder, and CEO of Cemvita Factory, explains. “That is one way we reduce the energy intake into the system, by using natural or synthetic light. We take a fermenter commonly used in the fermentation industry, roughly one million gallons in size, and then convert it into a photobioreactor to provide the light source to this microorganism.

“Our focus is on precursors to polymers and plastics, rather than biofuels, because there is already a huge legacy around biofuels which are just burned again, creating more emissions. When it comes to plastics and polymers, it is a method of sequestration; for example, PVC products which go into someone’s house for 100 years.”

Cemvita Factory’s business model

Karimi says that rather than being a product company, Cemvita Factory approach petrochemical companies to make them aware of the fact that biomanufacturing and synthetic biology has been commercialised and de-risked enough that there could be a better way of manufacturing the products they are making.

“Our company then engineers the microbe and builds a pathway that makes CO2 conversion possible for them,” he adds. “We do it on a small scale, initially only one litre before scaling that up to 100 litres and then 2000 litres.

“Once we get to 1000 litres though, we have boiled down the biochemistry into chemical engineering and process engineering. We will then have an Aspen model that shows the process and the integral life cycle assessment. It is at this point that our business model will start to switch to licensing, and that is where we call it microbes as a service, where we make the intellectual property of the microbe available to the company.”

After the company takes up the license, Cemvita Factory continue to stay engaged with them to help with the scaling process, support continuous improvement and train personnel they need for the plant. The company will submit a 1000 litre sample, from which the metric will be measured before they go fully commercial using a plant roughly ten times the size of the pre-commercial plant. This whole process can take around five to seven years.

Cemvita Factory also hold interests in biomining. The mining sector is coming under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, but they also have concerns surrounding the environmental impact of their industry.

“As an example, there might be a pond next to a town with a pH of two because of the pollution caused by mining,” Karimi explains. “Usually, the mining company would dump something like lime into it to increase the pH and neutralise the acidity. But for us, we have microbes that could survive in a very high or low pH, and they can produce compounds like alkaline bicarbonates that neutralise the acidity.”

Cemvita Factory and OXY partnership

One of Cemvita Factory’s biggest customers is Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (OLCV), a subsidiary of Occidental (OXY), which is working to convert CO2 in to bioethylene at a pilot plant which will apply technology using human-made CO2 instead of hydrocarbon-sourced feedstocks. Ethylene is used extensively in the chemical industry, primarily as a forerunner to polymers for use in durable, long-life products.

“This technology could provide an opportunity to offer a new, non-hydrocarbon-sourced ethylene product to the market, reducing carbon emissions, and in the future benefit our affiliate, OxyChem, which is a large producer and consumer of ethylene in its chlorovinyls business,” Dr Robert Zeller, vice president of technology at OLCV, says.

The two companies began their partnership in 2019, when OLCV made an investment in Cemvita Factory to jointly explore how the advances in synthetic biology can be used to provide sustainable pathways for the bio-manufacturing of OxyChem’ s products.

While this is not an exclusive venture, with both businesses working with other partners on various other projects, the innovations they are researching are certainly promising in leading to a decarbonised and sustainable chemical industry.

Carbon as a valuable resource

Carbon is becoming a valuable commodity because of its utilisation as a feedstock in carbon conversion industries. German technology company Siemens, for example, are producing hydrogen to combine it with carbon in the manufacture of synthetic fuels.

“The technologies that could use CO2 and convert it into other chemicals are all at a technology readiness level of three to five,” Karimi continues. “They are not things that are off the shelf and ready to go. In the US, we have the 45Q tax credits where companies get $35 per tonne of CO2 that they could utilise, and if they sequester it, they get $50. In Europe, most countries have tax penalties for emissions.”

While regular methods of reducing emissions and using renewable sources of energy are viable in most settings, scope two emissions from heavy industries are much harder to mitigate for because the manufacturers would have to drastically change their processes to accommodate for green solutions. CO2 utilisation gives them a pathway for reducing their emissions and creating new revenue streams from the CO2 they produce.

“On top of that they will also charge a premium for carbon negative chemicals or fuels because now society and other companies ask for low carbon products,” Karimi concludes. “It is not just the consumer asking, but also the company that is buying the plastic. Everyone wants low carbon or carbon-negative products to take carbon off the table.”

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