Cemvita Factory is putting microbes to work in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and producing bio-polymers used in the manufacturing of plastics.

The Houston-based industrial biotechnology start-up, funded by an Occidental subsidiary and others, transforms carbon dioxide into “value-added products” using its synthetic biology conversion platform.

Stay a step ahead with the Upstream News app
Read high quality news and insight on the oil and gas business and its energy transition on-the-go. The News app offers you more control over your Upstream reading experience than any other platform.

“The best way to explain the process is that it is similar to how biofuels are made,” Moji Karimi, co-founder and chief executive of Cemvita Factory, told Upstream.

“Rather than use corn or sugar as feedstock and yeast for the fermentation process to make biofuels, Cemvita has genetically engineered microbes to use carbon dioxide as the feedstock to create valuable organic molecules.”

The company has identified more than 30 critical molecules that can be made from carbon dioxide, according to Karimi.

“Our focus is mostly on the building blocks of polymers and plastics since they will sequester the carbon in a longer timeframe as opposed to fuels, which will be burned and create emissions,” he said.

Just bananas

In 2019, Cemvita Factory received an equity investment from Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (OLCV), a subsidiary of Occidental, to advance the development of bio-engineered pathways that use carbon dioxide as a feedstock to produce sustainable intermediate chemicals and polymers.

Ethylene is a hydrocarbon that is widely used in the chemical industry primarily as a precursor to polymers for use in durable, long-life products.

It is also a naturally occurring plant hormone that facilitates the ripening of fruits.

“Ripening is a naturally occurring chemical reaction that happens under ambient pressure and temperature inside the banana,” said Karimi.

“We took the gene for the ethylene-forming enzyme from bananas and engineered it into our host micro-organism that uses carbon dioxide as a feedstock.

"This engineered micro-organism is now turning carbon dioxide and water into bio-ethylene,” he explained.

Cemvita Factory’s early economic assessment shows that the company can utilise 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the flue gas of a co-generation power plant to produce 1 billion pounds of bio-ethylene per year.

Pilot project

“Nature provided the inspiration,” said Tara Karimi, fellow co-founder and chief technology officer for Cemvita Factory.

“We are now significantly increasing the productivity of our engineered micro-organism to achieve commercial metrics that we have defined alongside OLCV.”

OLCV and Cemvita Factory announced in April a plan to construct and operate a one metric ton per month bio-ethylene pilot plant using carbon dioxide instead of hydrocarbon-sourced feedstocks.

The pilot project will scale up the process that was successful in laboratory tests, which showed the OLCV-Cemvita technology is competitive with hydrocarbon-sourced ethylene processes. Start-up of the pilot plant is expected in 2022.

“This technology could provide an opportunity to offer a new, non-hydrocarbon-sourced ethylene product to the market, reducing carbon emissions, and in the future benefit our affiliate, OxyChem, which is a large producer and consumer of ethylene in its chlorovinyls business,” said OLCV vice president of technology Robert Zeller.

“This project is a great example of how Cemvita is applying industrial-strength synthetic biology to help our clients lower their carbon footprint while creating new revenue streams." said Moji Karimi.

Next steps

Cemvita Factory announced in August that it had received what Moji Karimi told Upstream was "several millions of dollars" in Series A financing to accelerate the company's mission of reversing climate change.

OLCV participated in the funding round, along with 8090 Partners, Seldor Capital and Climate Capital.

According to Moji Karimi, the funding will help support the scale-up of Cemvita’s platform and development of biological databases or "bioinformatics engine", containing data to optimise the different types of carbon dioxide-ingesting microbes.

"A recent example of synthetic biology commercialisation is with artificial meats," he said.

"The genetic engineering uses a gene from soy plants that is put into yeast, which is well studied. The microbes we use are not as well studied as yeast or E.coli, so we're building those databases."

In addition, the funding is being used to protect the intellectual property and to scale-up the process for commercial operations.