Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Could Genetically Modified Algae Replace Petroleum in Plastic?

Conventional plastic — found just about everywhere you can think of and in many places you wouldn’t — is made from ethylene, a cheap hydrocarbon made using petroleum and natural gas – through a process that emits more carbon dioxide than any other chemical process. At the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), researchers have been experimenting with ways to make ethylene production less toxic to the environment, and are apparently finding success with the help of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, according to ClimateWire.

With algae already poised to bite into petroleum’s monopoly as a viable biofuel for both automotive and aviation applications, it’s no surprise that the bacteria — which is also gaining traction as a substitute for palm oil in certain products — can replace fossil fuels in other applications as well. Jianping Yu, a research scientist with NREL’s Photobiology Group, is leading a team of researchers who are working with the organisms, and have been able to create ethylene directly from genetically modified algae.

The researchers introduced a gene that coded for an ethylene-producing enzyme — effectively altering the cyanobacteria’s metabolism and allowing them to convert some of the carbon dioxide normally used to make sugars and starches during photosynthesis into ethylene. And because ethylene is a gas, it can easily be collected.

In terms of inputs, this method of ethylene production only requires water, some minerals and light, and a carbon source. In a commercial setting, CO2 could come from a source such as a power plant. Yu said if this alternative production method becomes efficient enough, it could potentially replace steam cracking, the energy-intensive method currently used to break petrochemicals into ethylene and other compounds. And because the algae take in three times the CO2 to produce a single ton of ethylene, the process acts as a carbon sink. That would be a significant improvement over steam cracking, which creates between 1 ½ and 3 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of ethylene, according to the researchers’ own analysis. The captured ethylene gas can then be transformed for use in a wide range of fuels and products.

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“I think it’s better to turn CO2 into something useful,” Yu said, comparing the approach to other methods of carbon capture. “You don’t have to pump CO2 into the ground, and [the products] will last for many years.”

Yu and his colleagues weren’t the first to come up with the idea of using cyanobacteria to make ethylene. The process was first attempted by researchers in Japan more than a decade ago. At the time, the researchers were not able to produce ethylene reliably. When Yu read the study years later, he thought that by genetically altering a different strain with which he had worked closely (Synechocystis sp. PCC6803), he might be able to make ethylene production more consistent.

The researchers are able to make ethylene from algae by altering a part of the organism’s metabolism called the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle, which is involved in biosynthesis and energy production. In genetically unaltered blue-green algae, the cycle can only take in a relatively small fraction, or 13 percent, of the 2 to 3 percent of fixed CO2. But in Yu’s lab, the algae are able to send three times more carbon to the TCA cycle and emit 10 percent of the fixed carbon dioxide as ethylene — at a rate of 35 milligrams per liter per hour. That might not sound like very much, but it represents a thousandfold increase in productivity since he first began working with the cyanobacteria in 2010. By the end of this year, Yu is aiming to increase that productivity to 50 milligrams.

“This is by no means close to the upper limit,” he said, explaining that the ultimate goal will be to convert 90 percent of fixed carbon to ethylene. “I cannot see why it cannot go higher; I haven’t run into a brick wall yet. I don’t know what would prevent that from happening, but of course it could.”

Surprisingly, even though the cyanobacteria are producing more ethylene, the organisms are still growing at the same rate as non-ethylene-producing algae. The results demonstrate that the cyanobacteria’s metabolism was much more flexible than previously thought, according to Yu.

“It’s like a person that’s losing blood all the time but appears healthy,” he said.

Yu and his colleagues aren’t certain how this is happening, but the mutation that enabled ethylene production has also stimulated photosynthesis.

“This system gives us a new insight into photosynthesis and gives us hope that we can learn from this and increase photosynthetic activity,” he said.

That insight into cyanobacteria’s metabolism is as important a finding as the creation of organisms that can consistently produce ethylene, said Robert Burnap, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Oklahoma State University. He was not involved with the study, but did provide a reference for Yu’s application to this year’s R&D 100 Awards. Yu is now a finalist in the Mechanical Devices/Material category.

“It’s surprising how adaptive the metabolism is. It’s producing something it’s not evolved to make. There was a lot of controversy over whether or not that was even possible to have consistent ethylene production. It shows it is flexible,” Burnap said.

It’s still too early to say when or even if these algae will be able to produce ethylene at a commercial scale. Yu estimates that development to that stage could take more than 10 years.

“It will take a lot of work to improve carbon efficiency to 50 percent or higher,” Yu said.

Philip Pienkos, principal manager of the Bioprocess R&D Group at NREL’s National Bioenergy Center, said the project is beginning to focus more on the development side, even as Yu continues to work to achieve higher ethylene volumes.

“How do you recover ethylene? What do you do with the biomass? This project is poised to answer these important questions,” Pienkos said.

Sometime next year, the researchers plan to move their work outdoors to see how the algae behave in an environment that more closely resembles how they would be grown commercially.

Even if the cyanobacteria can create large volumes of ethylene, their success will depend on whether the product can become cost-competitive — a tall order compared with the affordability and availability (at least for now) of conventional, petrochemical-based ethylene. According to the researchers’ economic analysis, ethylene made from petrochemicals costs $600-1,300 per ton, while the algae-based version is estimated to be about $3,240 per ton.

Proving the system’s economic viability down the road will also help maintain research funding from the Department of Energy, Peinkos said.

“Algae is not the primary focus of DOE; they’ve spent decades supporting work in cellulosics. Algae is a much smaller portfolio, and most of the work is in conversion directly to liquid fuels,” he said. “Ethylene stands out a little bit because it’s not a fuel, but it can be a fuel feedstock.”

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