New tech converts natural gas to hydrogen at scale anywhere and Plastic-eating enzyme ‘cocktail’ heralds hope for plastic waste

September 29, 2020 |

It’s Tuesday and we’ve got two hot-off-the press technologies making news today. And if that isn’t enough Ts in one sentence, they also hit the target in terms of solving today’s tough trials.

Converting otherwise wasted natural gas into high-value hydrogen and acetylene

In Florida, Transform’s patented commercial-scale microwave plasma reactor system accelerates hydrogen infrastructure development and offers the petrochemical industry a path to reducing carbon emissions.

You see, at hydraulic fracking wellheads, natural gas is often flared instead of collected due to its low value — a colossal waste of a natural resource and a significant increase in harmful greenhouse gases. What if natural gas could easily be converted into useful components with immediate, high-value applications?

Today, Transform Materials does just that – transforming the petrochemical industry by converting this abundant resource into two important chemical building-blocks. Rather than use crude oil to make the building blocks for essential products like plastics and pharmaceuticals, Transform Materials’ energy-efficient process instead uses the methane in natural gas, converting it into high-value hydrogen and acetylene using microwave plasma technology.

Transform’s patented conversion process is deceptively simple but took years to perfect. Methane, the key component in natural gas, is usually just burned for heat, combining with oxygen in the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide, the predominant greenhouse gas. Oxidation of methane also introduces impurities in the product stream.

To avoid these undesirable outcomes, methane must be broken down without oxygen. But methane is extremely inert in an oxygen-free environment, and resists chemical reactions. With its innovative technology, Transform Materials breaks down methane and other similar light hydrocarbon gases without oxygen, recombining the resulting fragments into two high-value end products, acetylene and hydrogen. The key to this transformation is a patented microwave plasma reactor system, which generates these new products from methane efficiently, at very high rates of conversion and selectivity.

“Our process is clean and cost-effective, employs robust and off-the-shelf microwave hardware, and requires a relatively compact plant footprint. Also, our reactors can be multiplexed to scale up and meet incremental market demand,” said David Soane Ph.D., CEO of Transform Materials. “We are especially proud of our environmental stewardship; we essentially mop up methane and convert it into useful hydrogen fuel, at the same time locking up carbon in valuable end products.”

Numerous potential downstream industries will benefit

Hydrogen is emerging as an important fuel. For example, Transform Materials can fully utilize coalbed methane from coal mining operators to produce green hydrogen to power heavy equipment and hauling trucks. Fuel-cell vehicle fleet operators can take advantage of distributed manufacturing and strategic siting of refueling stations. For passenger cars, Transform Materials’ technology enables the build-out of crucial hydrogen infrastructure and produces hydrogen using approximately 40% less energy input than conventional methods of production.

For acetylene users, Transform Materials enables on-site production of this important precursor, guaranteeing surety of supply, conveniently and at low cost. Acetylene can be then converted into many derivative chemicals, all possessing high value—in fact, the availability of low-cost acetylene may lead to a renaissance of acetylene use for traditional applications including PVC and acetylene black, while laying the groundwork for new industrial applications.  A notable example is acetylene-led synthesis of lactic acid, which in turn can be easily polymerized into polylactic acid, a biodegradable polymer for packaging applications that can mitigate ocean plastic pollution.

“Transform Materials provides a green alternative to conventional technologies in the hydrogen economy and the petrochemical industry. Our microwave plasma process harnesses the power of natural gas without burning it, a win for the environment as well as for our partners,” added Soane.

Plastic-eating enzyme ‘cocktail’ heralds new hope for plastic waste

The other hot news today is how scientists who re-engineered the plastic-eating enzyme PETase have now created an enzyme ‘cocktail’ which can digest plastic up to six times faster.

A second enzyme, found in the same rubbish dwelling bacterium that lives on a diet of plastic bottles, has been combined with PETase to speed up the breakdown of plastic.

PETase breaks down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) back into its building blocks, creating an opportunity to recycle plastic infinitely and reduce plastic pollution and the greenhouse gases driving climate change.

PET is the most common thermoplastic, used to make single-use drinks bottles, clothing and carpets and it takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment, but PETase can shorten this time to days.

The initial discovery set up the prospect of a revolution in plastic recycling, creating a potential low-energy solution to tackle plastic waste. The team engineered the natural PETase enzyme in the laboratory to be around 20 percent faster at breaking down PET.

Now, the same trans-Atlantic team have combined PETase and its ‘partner’, a second enzyme called MHETase, to generate much bigger improvements: simply mixing PETase with MHETase doubled the speed of PET breakdown, and engineering a connection between the two enzymes to create a ‘super-enzyme’, increased this activity by a further three times.

The team was co-led by the scientists who engineered PETase, Professor John McGeehan, Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at the University of Portsmouth, and Dr Gregg Beckham, Senior Research Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US.

Professor McGeehan said, “Gregg and I were chatting about how PETase attacks the surface of the plastics and MHETase chops things up further, so it seemed natural to see if we could use them together, mimicking what happens in nature.

“Our first experiments showed that they did indeed work better together, so we decided to try to physically link them, like two Pac-men joined by a piece of string.

“It took a great deal of work on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was worth the effort – we were delighted to see that our new chimeric enzyme is up to three times faster than the naturally evolved separate enzymes, opening new avenues for further improvements.”

The original PETase enzyme discovery heralded the first hope that a solution to the global plastic pollution problem might be within grasp, though PETase alone is not yet fast enough to make the process commercially viable to handle the tons of discarded PET bottles littering the planet.

Combining it with a second enzyme, and finding together they work even faster, means another leap forward has been taken towards finding a solution to plastic waste.

PETase and the new combined MHETase-PETase both work by digesting PET plastic, returning it to its original building blocks. This allows for plastics to be made and reused endlessly, reducing our reliance on fossil resources such as oil and gas.

Professor McGeehan used the Diamond Light Source, in Oxfordshire, a synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the Sun to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms. This allowed the team to solve the 3D structure of the MHETase enzyme, giving them the molecular blueprints to begin engineering a faster enzyme system.

The new research combined structural, computational, biochemical and bioinformatics approaches to reveal molecular insights into its structure and how it functions. The study was a huge team effort involving scientists at all levels of their careers.

The Centre for Enzyme Innovation takes enzymes from the natural environment and, using synthetic biology, adapts them to create new enzymes for industry.


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