4H Club, Methane to the rescue: The Calysta, Mango Materials, Industrial Microbes, T2C Energy stories

September 13, 2022 |

Biogas is an ancient thing, organisms have been making it for millenia – only in recent decades have we learned to capture and use it to generate on-site heat and power. That was the first generation of biomethane. 

A few years ago, 2G arrived. In 2G, we learned to purify, compress and transport biomethane and it serves to day not only for heating, but pipeline grade RNG for electricity generation, and CNG for trucks. It’s proven popular where there is strong preference for low-carbon fuels.

Now, along comes 3G. This is the supply of methane as an intermediate feedstock for the production of complex and high value chemicals, fuels and foods. If 1G and 2G are all about methanogen organisms that consume waste and produce products, 3G is to a great extent about methanotrophs converting methane into higher value materials. Mango Materials focuses on plastics, Calysta on foods, T2C Energy uses a thermocatalytic process to make fuels. Industrial Microbes makes methanol and 3-hydroxypropionic acid amongst other designer molecules. We’d also mention the early stage T2C Energy coming along fast with drop-in fuels.

Here’s the latest from each.

Calysta

In June, reports arrived of commissioning and start-up activities have commenced at the world’s first industrial-scale FeedKind facility, to produce a new sustainable functional protein that does not use animal or plant ingredients in its production. Calysseo, a joint venture between worldwide animal nutrition leader Adisseo and protein innovator Calysta, will produce 20,000 tonnes of FeedKind® Aqua protein annually from the facility in Chongqing, China. 

The microbial protein is produced via a natural fermentation that does not use arable land, animal or plant matter, and uses very little water in its production. Initially, production will be available for use in China, the world’s largest aquaculture market. Whilst operating under COVID-19 restrictions, the Calysseo team maintained schedule of the landmark facility, meaning FeedKind® should be delivered to the first customers this year.

First industrial-scale FeedKind® facility heralds new era of food security

In 2019 we reported that Calysta got a hefty $30 million investment from BP Ventures to support a worldwide rollout of Calysta’s FeedKind protein. Touted as a huge step forward in global food security, Calysta’s sustainable single-cell protein is produced through a proprietary, commercially-validated gas fermentation process using naturally occurring, non-GM microbes with the unique ability to use methane as their energy source. Calysta will use BP’s natural gas as the energy source for their fish and animal feed protein…but the potential could be even bigger if renewable methane could be used.

More From Less, Thanks to Fermenting Natural Gas: The Digest’s 2019 Multi-Slide Guide to Calysta’s Protein Ingredients

Industrial Microbes

Last July, we reported that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the selection of 6 projects totaling over $5 million to conduct research and development needed to accelerate the U.S. biomanufacturing sector. As part of the DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) Agile BioFoundry (ABF) consortium, these projects will leverage national laboratory capabilities to address challenges in biomanufacturing. Among the projects, Industrial Microbes (Alameda, CA), will work on eliminating barriers to the use of gaseous feedstocks by creating a predictive model that identifies productivity improvements, forecasts performance, and enhances the robustness of gas fermentation processes.

Agile BioFoundry Selects New Collaborations

In 2020 we reported that Industrial Microbes was issued a foundational patent in the U.S. (US 10,689,674) for the core component of its technology to turn methane into valuable chemicals using fermentation. This broad patent relates to the successful expression of an enzyme in E. coli that enables the cell to convert methane into methanol.

Methane is an ideal raw material for chemical production due to its low cost, abundance, and energy density. Renewable methane is available from landfills, wastewater treatment, farms, and food waste from the degradation of organic matter. Fermentation of methane into chemicals has attracted a significant amount of attention over the years, but the challenges of working with natural methane-consuming bacteria prevented the commercialization of any such technology. Engineering E. coli to consume methane circumvents many of those problems.

“Methane is a feedstock that has the potential to transform the bioeconomy by lowering costs, unlocking new chemical markets, and reducing carbon emissions. The combination of methane-oxidation and the flexibility of working with E. coli as a host offers a powerful platform for industrial biotechnology,” said Derek Greenfield, Ph.D., Industrial Microbes CEO. “E. coli has been used in large-scale fermentations for decades, and by expanding the suite of raw materials, we can leverage the power of synthetic biology to make chemicals in a low-cost, greener process.”

The ability to oxidize methane into methanol is the critical first biological step for building more complex molecules. Though natural methane-oxidizing bacteria have been studied for decades, no one had previously demonstrated a strain of E. coli with the ability to turn methane into methanol in vivo. This key enzyme can also oxidize ethane, another component of natural gas, into ethanol. This breakthrough has been a component of several subsequent projects by the Industrial Microbes team to build complete biological pathways from methane and ethane to a variety of specialty and commodity chemicals.

In 2019 we reported that the U.S. Department of Energy has announced a $1M SBIR Phase II grant award for a collaboration between Industrial Microbes and Opus 12 to facilitate the integration of Industrial Microbes’s methane-to-industrial-chemicals platform with Opus 12’s CO2-to-methane platform.

The companies’ combined technology addresses remediation of the two most important GHG gases: CO2 and methane. In the first phase of the project, the two teams demonstrated that their technologies could be combined to catalyze the conversion of CO2 and methane contained in biogas into a high-value product. This new funding enables the partners to accelerate scale-up and validation of their breakthrough technology. Through this project, the capture and reuse of greenhouse gases will be incentivized by the value of the final product. The target product for this program is “a versatile chemical intermediate for the materials sector with a market potential in excess of $20B per year”. 

Mango Materials

The company uses innovative manufacturing technology to turn methane from waste carbon emissions into biodegradable, biopolyester fibers.

In March we reported that In Washington, D.C., five trailblazing projects aiming to prevent the devastating impacts of microplastic pollution have won $525,000 as part of Conservation X Lab’s (CXL) Microfiber Innovation Challenge, including Mango Materials which turns methane from waste carbon emissions into biopolyester fibers. The winners beat competition from 19 countries for their solutions to prevent shedding of microfibers that are shed into water systems when synthetic fabrics are washed.

PHA Biopolymers: The Digest’s 2020 Multi-Slide Guide to Mango Materials

T2C Energy

We’ve called it the savior of fuels. The first heavy duty drop-in biofuel to break the $3/gallon level without subsidies

This summer, we reported a new technology arrivingin South Florida for the conversion of biogas to diesel fuels. If you thought of this as a biogas-to-paraffins technology, that would be fine, too. But it’s not strictly a methane-to-paraffins technology, because this technology from T2C also utilizes the CO2 stream found in biogas.

The biggest problem, in terms of US sites? Yes, there’s 800,000 standard cubic feet per minute of biogas, representing the equivalent of 3.7 billion gasoline gallons. At 2,451 landfills, 1,241 wastewater anaerobic digester (AD) facilities, and 282 agricultural AD facilities. Yet, 85 percent of facilities produce less than 4 standard cubic feet per minute. The feedstock is devastatingly decentralized.

Two other problems?

1. Different feedstocks present challenges for digesters.

2. The conventional products for biogas are heat, power and CNG for fuels — they are becoming saturated and more of a buyer’s market based on low commodity prices. It’s getting hard to find CNG vehicles that aren’t using bio-CNG already, and competition from cheap wind and solar muffles the demand for electricity. Heat is still viable, but that can restrict geography.

A number of technologies address landfill as a source of feedstock for liquid fuels — that’s what Velocys is working on in the UK and elsewhere and Fulcrum BioEnergy is too, in several US projects. Yet, those projects are aiming for scales that dwarf the supply available from, say, a digester atop a local dairy.

Enter T2C, which has licensed the TRIFTS technology from the University of South Florida and is now developing it. T2C describes it elegantly: The heavy equipment and waste hauling trucks can therefore unload and refuel at the same landfill or AD site with a renewable diesel fuel derived from the very waste they hauled. That’s circular scale, not just circular technology.

Less than $3/G, no subsidy, no kidding: The Digest’s 2022 Multi-Slide Guide to T2C Energy technology  

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