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Houston startup mimicking plants to capture carbon emissions

23 November 2020 Amena Saiyid

Oil and gas developers, miners and petrochemical manufacturers who are looking to reduce their carbon footprint of their products may have a solution right in their backyards.

Houston-based Cemvita Factory Inc. claims to have found this solution in plants, which harness the energy from sunlight, draw water from the soil, and absorb carbon dioxide from the air to make glucose and other vital yet complex nutrients to survive.

Likewise, Cemvita an industrial bio-engineering firm, has developed a technique that like plants captures carbon dioxide and converts it with some sunlight and water into everyday plastics and other commonly used goods, Moji Karimi, the company's co-founder and chief executive officer, told IHS Markit in an exclusive interview.

The company has achieved this feat by tapping into the latest and greatest advances in synthetic biology." It used naturally occurring microbes, which Cemvita scientists genetically modified, to eat up carbon dioxide and spit out the chemical desired by the client.

One of those chemicals is ethylene, the primary building block of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and other plastics that oil and gas companies like Occidental Petroleum Corp. extract from fossil fuels using a carbon-intensive process.

Not anymore if Cemvita's solution takes off.

Cemvita is currently in the early stages of using its patented low-carbon technique to develop "bio-ethylene" under a joint venture with Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC, an Occidental that involved in advancing and financing promising low-carbon technologies and business solutions and lowering the company's carbon footprint.  

Occidental, which is currently the world's third largest supplier for polyvinyl chloride and other products that use ethylene as the building block, has recently pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions not only for its operations as early as 2040, but also to reduce emissions for consumers that use its products as early as mid-century.

Boon for oil and gas companies

Cemvita's solution, scaled-up commercially, could prove a boon for oil and gas and petrochemical companies like Occidental that are looking to decarbonize after pledging net zero carbon emissions levels by mid century. The startup's use of specially designed microbes to catalyze the natural weathering processes of rocks also could prove beneficial to energy-intensive mining companies that are looking for cost-effective ways to hasten the process of extracting valuable metals from ores or remediating mining sites contaminated by heavy metals or acids.

"We are using a carbon dioxide as a feedstock, as an asset, instead of a liability or a waste product," Karimi said.

There is a global push toward adopting renewables and phasing out fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal. However, engineers and scientists like Karimi, who holds a petroleum engineering degree, recognizes these efforts won't be enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions below the Paris Agreement's goal to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"Apart from adopting and investing in renewable sources of energy, oil and gas companies should also find ways to decarbonize their legacy assets and produce low-carbon products that the society and investors looking at environmentally sustainable projects are demanding," Karimi said.

Heavy industries, which include the oil and gas, petrochemicals and mining sectors, are responsible for about 40% of the atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions that are driving climate change.

Occidental President and Chief Executive Officer Vicky Hollub supports the use of carbon dioxide released by oil and gas operations for the company's existing operations, such as enhanced oil recovery rather than moving away from its core business.

During the company's third-quarter earnings call on 10 November, Hollub said Occidental intends to pursue a "contrarian approach" by investing in low-carbon solutions for its greenhouse gas emissions. Hollub said it wasn't going to follow the examples of BP PlC, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and other European companies that are moving away from oil and gas and investing in renewables.

This is where Cemvita's carbon utilization platform comes in that offers negative-carbon solutions, or solutions that involve uptake and use of carbon dioxide emissions, for heavy industries like Occidental.

This platform offers 30 different chemicals, or molecules as Karimi puts, it that Cemvita can manufacture by using carbon dioxide as a feedstock for its portfolio of genetically engineered microbes.

"We go up to businesses and ask them what molecules do you need, and we will make those for you using carbon dioxide and water," said Karimi.

Putting the banana gene to work

One such chemical is bio-ethylene, which Cemvita has successfully formed by inserting a specially designed banana gene into a microbe, explained Tara Karimi, the company's co-founder and chief science officer whose background lies in biochemistry and molecular biology.

Cemvita already has completed a lab-scale demonstration of successfully producing bio-ethylene for Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, and now the startup is ready to start the second phase of making bio-ethylene from carbon dioxide captured from Occidental's oil and gas operations in Texas.

Occidental is excited about using its newly developed direct air capture facility to draw carbon dioxide from its operations for enhanced oil recovery in the Permian basin along the Gulf Coast, Hollub said during the same 10 December call with investors.

Successful business model

It is a business model that Hollub said she is particularly excited about because it can be deployed at any of their operations in Oman, Nigeria, and other countries where you name it.

For starters, Hollub said the direct air capture project will help Occidental's shareholders by lowering costs of enhanced oil recovery in the Permian Basin. But more importantly, "we will be able to expand beyond our operations and give opportunities to other industries so they can partner with us," she added.

She pointed to the 1PointFive, which Occidental subsidiary Oxy Low Carbon Ventures has formed in partnership with the private equity firm Rusheen Capital Management, that will finance and deploy the large-scale direct air capture technology.

Nature-inspired solution

Cemvita is one of many low-carbon ventures that Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (OLCV) is backing, but it is the only one engaging in what Karimi describes as "nature-inspired solutions."

The genetic engineering technique is not unique to Cemvita. In 2015, Yu Jianping, a molecular biology researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Golden, Colo., said he genetically modified a species of cyanobacteria to gobble up carbon dioxide and to release ethylene.

NREL's Jianping said this capability of cyanobacteria could mean a savings of six tons of carbon dioxide emissions for every ton of ethylene produced. The CO2 savings include the three tons that would be emitted by tapping fossil fuels and another three tons absorbed by the bacteria.

Karimi said Cemvita experimented with the same species as Jianping, but the company has refined and redesigned the bio-ethylene production process to scale up for commercial use.

Once fully operation, Cemvita has estimated their project would utilize 1.7 million tons of carbon dioxide per year to produce 1 billion lbs of bioethylene. 

An International Energy Agency model has estimated that 5.6 billion metric tons to about 10.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions need to be captured to reach the 2015 goal. Currently carbon sequestration is responsible for capturing about 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, Vicki Hollub, Occidental's president and chief executive officer, said during the company's 10 November third quarter earnings call.

"That is more than 250 times is being captured," Hollub said.

Posted 23 November 2020 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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