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Occidental taps US startup to bioengineer ethylene using CO2

06 April 2021 Amena Saiyid

A subsidiary of oil giant Occidental Petroleum is teaming up with Houston-based Cemvita Factory, a bioengineering firm, to demonstrate that ethylene can be made from harnessing sunlight and capturing CO2 like plants.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (OLCV) announced 6 April a plan to design and construct a pilot plant in Houston that will start producing bio-engineered ethylene in early 2022 using a technique Cemvita has patented.

Plants use photosynthesis, meaning they harness energy from sunlight, draw water from the soil, and absorb carbon dioxide from the air, to make glucose and complex nutrients to survive. Cemvita is mimicking the plants' approach to produce bio-ethylene, a building block for everyday plastics and other commonly used goods.

Occidental, which is currently the world's third-largest supplier of polyvinyl chloride and other products that use ethylene as a building block, pledged in 2020 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.

Once scaled up commercially, "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," Robert Zeller, OLCV vice president of technology, said in a statement announcing the company's plans.

Ready to scale up

Cemvita had already completed a laboratory-scale demonstration of successfully producing bio-ethylene for OLCV in 2020, and now the engineering firm is ready to scale up production of bioethylene from CO2 captured from industrial processes, such as natural gas production.

The company's scientists use naturally occurring microbes, which they have genetically modified, to take in carbon dioxide from the air and energy from the sun to produce the chemical desired by the client.

In the case of bio-ethylene, "we took a gene from a banana and genetically engineered it into our CO2-utilizing host microorganism," Tara Karimi, Cemvita's chief scientific officer, said.

For the initial pilot phase, Cemvita plans to purchase CO2 from a local gas supplier. "Later we expect to use natural gas combustion CO2 and perhaps direct air capture CO2," Blake Manuel, Cemvita's corporate development director, said April 6.

During CERAWeek by IHS Markit in March, Occidental CEO Vicki Hollub made it known that she wants to position the company as a carbon management company, which will develop and promote sustainable uses for CO2 that is emitted by its existing oil and gas operations.

Occidental currently produces, processes, and consumes CO2 in a way that leads to the removal of 18 million mt of CO2 a year, which is the emissions equivalent of about 4 million cars.

Direct air capture

In a joint venture called 1PointFive with private equity firm Rusheen Capital Management, Occidental is looking to build a commercial-scale plant using Canadian-based Carbon Engineering's direct air capture technology that will begin operating in 2023.

The plant will be designed to capture as much as 1 million mt of CO2 a year, equivalent to the emissions from about 215,000 cars.

"You know, for us it's really the responsible management of hydrocarbons from extraction to utilization. That includes what we're talking about today around storage and cycling. It really is working to reduce waste, to be able to create a true net-zero capable system as we think about energy going forward," Richard Jackson, Occidental president operations that include US onshore resources and carbon management, said during a CERAWeek discussion on carbon capture.

Posted 06 April 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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