Syngas & methane fermentation

Syngas & methane fermentation

On Wednesday 16 July, I went to the institute of materials, minerals & mining in London, to attend a SCI conference on ‘opportunities in fuels and chemicals from syngas and methane fermentation’. The location was in a strikingly beautiful and opulent building both inside and out, resting on the back of the mall, just half a mile from Buckingham Palace.

victoria memorial side small.jpgThe conference delivered presentations from both business and academia most with a goal of feeding gas guzzling microbes with syngas and methane (produced via anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis and gasification) or industrial greenhouse gas emissions, in order to create food, fuel and plastic.

Two presenters, Calysta and Lanzatech, discussed how their work transforms greenhouse gas emissions to good with the use of bacteria, really stood out for me, partly because I am a microbiologist but largely for their environmental merit.  Even as a microbiologist it still amazes me what bacteria can achieve as single-celled organisms you can’t even see.

Some biofuels have been met with controversy over the years in terms of the food to fuel debate, especially with an ever increasing human population. Calysta is exploiting methane-using microbes to produce both food and fuel.  At a Norwegian plant they produce a methane-based protein replacement for fishmeal which can be used in animal feed; and in their American plants, liquid fuels and chemicals for plastic production.  The methane used for the process can come from a number of resources including from wastes, such as from landfill, wastewater treatment plants and stranded gas sites as well as from anaerobic digestion.

Globally China produces the highest carbon dioxide emissions of any nation, mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels. Carbon emissions have risen by 170 % in the last decade.  Steel manufacture accounts for 25 % of industry carbon dioxide emissions globally and China is the World’s biggest steel producing nation.  So it stands to reason that some sort of carbon capture is established in the country. Lanzatech use bacteria (Clostridium) which essentially mop up greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and convert them into liquid chemicals which can be used as a fuel or as precursors for plastic manufacture. I first came across Lanzatech at Clostridium X a conference I attended in 2010 whilst doing my PhD.  Lanzatech has been making headlines since then.  They formed a partnership with Virgin Atlantic in 2011 to develop jet fuel, installed successful pre-commercial plants at steel mills Shougang group and Baosteel in China, and their first commercial plant at Baosteel is due to open next year.  They also have MoU in place with two of the largest coal producers in China (Henan Coal and Chemical Industrial Corporation and Yankuang group) to convert carbon emissions into ethanol. 

Making fuels from wastes is a definite part of the future and allows for sustainability in a finite World.  People the World over should take more responsibility to transform bad into good.  We definitely have the skills and we are armed with a multitude of resources, including microbes, to achieve this. 

Chief Science Officer

Julie is the Chief Science Officer for the Scottish Biofuel Programme. Julie holds a PhD in Microbiology and her research expertise is in ABE Fermentation. She is also interested in sustainable biofuels and energy production.

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