New Technology Magazine

Bioreaction to the GHG Issue

Technologies use micro-organisms to consume waste CO2

By Carter Haydu

Microbial life forms that gorge themselves on the carbon emissions from Alberta’s oil and gas industry would not only reduce the negative environmental impacts from the sector, but could also provide the province economic growth through refinement of valuable by-products of the bioreactor process.

During Zero 2014: A Conference for a Low Carbon Future, Alberta-based Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) named 24 winners—selected from 344 submissions from 37 countries on six continents—for the first round of the $35-million international Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses.

With a goal to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by fostering the development of technologies that create new carbon-based, value-added products and markets, CCEMC launched a multi-year competition in 2013. Each winner of this round will receive $500,000 of funding and access to a support team to aid in developing each idea.

Among this year’s winners were U.S.-based Industrial Microbes Inc., the University of Maryland and Hy-TEK Bio LLC, and Oakbio Inc., all of whom are developing methods in which micro-algae or cyanobacteria would reduce atmospheric CO2 by using the GHG as a carbon source.


Much like brewing beer, Industrial Microbes is developing a fermentation-based method to fix and upgrade CO2, says Derek Greenfield, chief executive officer.

“In beer brewing, microbes convert sugars from grain into alcohol. Our process is very similar as we have microbes that are converting two greenhouse gases—CO2 and also methane. We are making building-block chemicals using that fermentation process.

“The chemicals we are making can be used for end-use applications such as bio­degradable plastics for things such as disposable cups, as well as for things such as fibreglass.”

According to Greenfield, while there are many companies fermenting sugars into different products, there are only a handful of companies using GHGs to do so and even fewer using specific building-block chem­icals from CO2 and natural gas.

“There are no natural organisms that can convert CO2 and methane into these chem­icals that we are making. We are using the tools of synthetic biology to basically combine the pathways of two different organisms into one host. This will be a synthetic micro-­organism that can do this.

“The advantage is not that it can do this chemistry at all, but that we think it can do it incredibly efficiently, so that none of the carbon gets wasted, and it all ends up in the final product, and it’s a very low-energy process.”

Greenfield says the CCEMC grant is seed funding for Industrial Microbes to conduct lab work, taking months of planning and designing, and actually start to build the process. He says the company is four to five years away from its first plant to produce enough material to be tested.

“The CCEMC Grand Challenge is actually over a six-year process, and we’re hoping to time our development according to that timeline. They are really supporting all the teams to try and get to a commercial process that can fix a million tonnes of CO2 every year.

“If all goes well, then at full scale, we will be able to convert one megatonne of CO2 every year into valuable chemicals. That’s enough to make a noticeable dent into Alberta’s carbon emissions. And we will be using natural gas to power this entire process, and so that is just one more additional benefit for the natural gas producers.”

According to Greenfield, there are tremendous opportunities for his company’s technology
to integrate with and add value to Alberta’s oil and gas sector and overall economy.

“I think what is exciting about our process is that we could actually start to build out a chemical manufacturing industry in Alberta, taking advantage of the abundant resources there to provide some new value and high-tech jobs. It would help Alberta become a net exporter of all sorts of new, exciting products made out of petroleum.”


Oakbio is developing a system for converting CO2 from Alberta’s industrial flue gas emissions into butanol, as well as other biofuels, using a system developed for production of bioplastics such as polyhydroxyalkanoates.

Brian Sefton, president and chief technology officer, says the demand for these products is sufficient to account for capture of a significant amount of globally produced CO2, and the Oakbio process is intended to make large-scale capture and conversion of waste CO2 into a profitable business.

“In phase one, we’re developing the butanol capability,” Sefton says. “The same microbe—another version of it—already has plastic production capability.”

According to Sefton, the bacteria his company uses are very simple types of cells that have many critical functions on their outside surface, such as the ability to absorb CO2 and hydrogen. The microbes Oakbio uses have been pre-selected to be resistant to chemicals in Oakbio’s flue gas laboratory co-located at an industrial plant.

Oakbio’s process is similar to how green plants capture CO2, using chlorophyll in photosynthesis, but does not require light as a source of energy. It instead uses hydrogen, which is often on site at those locations in Alberta where the company expects to capture carbon. Sefton says CCEMC funding will help them get butanol production to commercial levels to justify construction of a pilot facility in a later phase.

Oakbio expects its butanol program—currently under development in partnership with Ohio State University—to be able to produce n-butanol, a primary alcohol with a four-carbon structure, at high enough concentrations to be commercially viable within two years.

Sefton says there are many oppor­tunities for cogeneration integration into Alberta’s economy. For example, Oakbio could make fuel to be processed and sold. The company could take waste CO2 or hydrogen and make that into fuel. Or it could create fuel using microbes and certain contaminated water streams.

With octane levels similar to gasoline, Sefton says, butanol is also a promising candidate for the replacement of gasoline as a transportation energy source, which supports the economics behind his technology.

“We’re not going to put all the oil companies out of business. Instead, we are going to partner with them and win them over with the economic benefits of being producers of this green fuel.”


Using micro-algae to mitigate CO2 from industrial air pollution, the University of Maryland and Hy-TEK harvest the algal biomass to prod­uce biofuels, lutein and other by-products.

“We use micro-algae that we isolated from Chesapeake Bay,” says Feng Chen, associate professor at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, which is part of the university’s Center for Environmental Science.

Working with the Maryland start-up company, the institute was able to increase the efficiencies of the harvesting technology and of the CO2 uptake that the micro-algae use in its synthesis, Chen says, as well as increase biofuel production. Hy-TEK uses the bio­reactor to sequester CO2 as the source gas and has developed a pilot system at the Black River Wastewater Treatment Plant, using flue gas released from a small on-site power plant.

Chen says: “In the future, we will use our bioreactors in Alberta and also other parts of the world. Once you produce a lot of algae that grows very dense, you harvest it and dry it at some point, and you can actually sell your dry algae biomass. There is a market for that.

“There is potential that you could use this algae biomass to make biodiesel because the strain we isolate has a very high lipid content, which can be converted to biodiesel.”

The technology is nearing the point where Hy-TEK can use it wherever there are CO2 emissions, including oil and gas production, Chen says. CCEMC funding allows researchers to develop more advanced technologies and test the efficiencies of the system, figuring out how the bioreactors would work under various environmental situations.

Bob Mroz, president and chief executive officer at Hy-TEK, says the technology takes flue gas and injects it into a patented photo bioreactor filled with the special strain of algae, which consumes the CO2, mono-­nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and even volatile organic compounds from the exhaust.

According to Mroz, Hy-TEK’s technology is easily adaptable in Alberta’s winter weather since the bioreactors and algae are contained in a protective “shell” building, aiding in the control of the environment for maximum growth of algae, which relates directly to maximum mitigation of CO2 and other GHG emissions per volume of algal culture.

“Capturing the CO2 from the burning of methane to produce electricity in the oilfields of Alberta or simply capturing CO2 directly released from underground formations, our technology will convert the CO2 and other [GHG] emissions to algae and oxygen—no other emissions are released,” he says, adding the first commercial project should occur within the next few months.

The State of Maryland has requested Hy-TEK provide a quote to mitigate carbon emissions from a local landfill that could produce a megawatt of energy from the landfill’s 500-cubic-feet-per-minute gas flow. Mroz anticipates it will take less than a year to generate funding for the project.

“In the meantime, the CCEMC grant funding will give me a perfect opportunity to move forward in scale-up and additional automation to both meet the requirements to win a position in the next round of CCEMC funding, as well as be ready for our first small commercial project.”

The Grand Challenge’s second round begins in September 2015, with five more winners receiving $3 million. From that group, CCEMC will award a $10-million grant in 2018 to establish a business that annually reduces greenhouse gas by one net megatonne in Alberta.

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