In India, a joint research project with oil major IndianOil Corporation Ltd, India Department of Biotechnology, and US-headed carbon recycling biotechnology developers LanzaTech Inc., has developed a novel integrated carbon capture and utilization (CCU) process that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) into commercial-grade Omega-3 fatty acid esters and biodiesel. The consortium says that it is now ready to take the process to a commercial demonstration scale.
The DBT-IOC Centre for Advanced Bio-Energy Research in Faridabad, Haryana is an entity co-funded by the India Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and IndianOil Corp (IOC). Together with LanzaTech, the consortium has been working on this technology platform since 2014 when they first demonstrated the production of high-value Omega-3 fatty acids (docosahexaenoic acid – DHA) and fatty acids for biodiesel from carbon dioxide (CO2) feedstock.
On August 10, 2018, in conjunction with World Biofuel Day, Shri Krishan Pal, Minister of State for Social Justice & Empowerment, inaugurated DBT-IOC-LanzaTech Pilot Plant.
Novel 3G pilot
At a virtual press briefing held on December 8, 2020, representatives from all three project stakeholders provided an update on the process, results achieved at the pilot plant, and planned next steps.
Today is an important day as together we share our progress towards a future where waste carbon is no longer viewed as a liability but rather as an opportunity and the feedstock of the future, said Dr Jennifer Holmgren, CEO, LanzaTech in her remarks.
It’s not difficult to agree with Dr Holmgren. The novel third-generation (3G) technology demonstrated by the pilot plant has been developed by integrating LanzaTech’s patented anaerobic gas fermentation technology and renewable hydrogen to convert captured CO2 into acetic acid/acetate.
This is then used as feedstock IndianOil R&D’s patented aerobic fermentation technology to convert acetate into lipids (algal oil), including Omega 3-fatty acids (DHAs). The lipids are then trans-esterified followed by the separation of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) esters as a high-value product.
The remaining lipid esters are used to produce biodiesel while the residual spent algal biomass serves as a source of protein for use in animal feed – food, feed, and biofuels from waste carbon.
High lipid producing algae
Dr SSV Ramakumar, Director R&D at IndianOil, explained that the company has isolated a novel heterotroph algae strain, which has both high productivity and high lipid to biomass ratio – up to 50 percent of the algae biomass is lipid. Being heterotroph, the algae do not require sunlight.
Furthermore, 40-60 percent of the lipid production is Omega-3. Combing this process with LanzaTech’s CO2 to acetic acid/acetate process provides a lost-cost carbon source resolving a key economic concern.
According to Dr SSV Ramakumar, the global average cost of carbon capture is in the US$40-50 per kg range while US$25 per kg is needed to achieve cost viability of carbon capture projects in general.
A recent report from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the United States (US) pegged costs for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) ranging from US$42 to US$137 per tonne CO2 sequestered achievable in the long-term respective near-term scenarios.
Be that as it may, the results presented from the 10 kg per day pilot plant seem extremely promising and both parties stress that “a significantly good translation” has been achieved from lab to pilot scale.
Of 10 kg CO2, the pilot plant yields 0.8 kg of DHA, 0.8 kg of biodiesel, and 1.7 kg of protein-rich de-oiled biomass. Commercial grade DHA esters are primarily derived from fish and algae sources and prices range from US$500-US$1 200 per kg depending upon its purity.
At the same time, according to LanzaTech’s Dr Sean Simpson, the primary cost driver is renewable electricity for electrolysis of water for green hydrogen. As renewable power costs fall, the overall economics improve even further.
In terms of scale-up, Dr Simpson highlighted that, in theory, the integrated process is infinitely scalable in the sense that the input materials are renewable CO2 and renewable hydrogen and the process is a closed-loop with no liquid discharge, waste streams, or emissions. Increasing production throughput capacity by introducing pressure is another avenue that remains to be explored.
Commercial-demo scale next
As the pilot plant has demonstrated, the novel and disruptive integrated technology has the potential to create a platform that can produce sustainable food, feed, and fuels economically and at a commercial scale.
For IndianOil, this potential offers an advantage over other oil marketing companies (OMCs) in India. Not only as a means to reduce its overall carbon emissions but also to the possibility to produce high-value products such as DHA and biodiesel.
The latter is perhaps of more immediate significance to IndianOil given the national biofuel blending mandates and limited domestic biodiesel production from conventional feedstocks such as used cooking oil (UCO).
In parallel, IndianOil is rolling out compressed biogas (CBG) production facilities, developing wind power and solar PV assets, developing hydrogen from biomass gasification, engaged with LanzaTech on a refinery off-gas to ethanol project, and developing advanced ethanol (2G) production together with compatriot Praj Industries.
The next step, according to IndianOil and LanzaTech, is to develop a commercial demonstration plant at an IndianOil location within the next 18 or so months and a total economic assessment (TEA) study is due to be launched.
While a 100 000 tonnes of CO2 per annum plant was used as an input-output illustration during the presentation, the size and site location of the demo plant has yet to be determined.
However, IndianOil plans to put up commercial plants at suitable refinery locations with 2G ethanol plants as pure CO2 streams are available from the mono-ethyl glycol (MEG) and 2G ethanol fermentation units and hydrogen from refineries.
Commenting on the significance of the joint collaboration, Tarun Kapoor, Secretary Ministery of Petroleum & Natural Gas (MoP&NG) remarked in passing that it was a “rare” example of leading-edge advanced biofuels technology developed in India that has globally disruptive potential.
Irrespective if it is rare or not, Secretary Kapoor would seem right about the disruptive nature and global potential.
The global market for Omega-3 fatty acid esters and DHA derived products, which are used in consumer health products such as infant formulae, dietary supplements, fortified food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, and other nutraceutical applications, is projected by various market intelligence agencies to be about 100 000 tonnes per annum by 2025 and worth about US$57 billion.
Europe, India, and North America currently dominate in terms of market consumption whereas populations in regions with dietary deficiencies stand to benefit the most.
Thus, it is not a stretch to suggest that a process that not only addresses carbon emissions but also food, feed, and fuels in the same cost-effective process, without the use of fish, ought to generate investment interest outside of India too.
On the question of a future business model surrounding the jointly-developed technology, such as licensing to third parties via a joint-venture company, it is still too early. Both processes are widely patented by the respective collaborators and they are now protected by granted IPs in prominent geographies.
Both parties have indicated that such future-oriented discussions have yet to be had between them, getting the demo plant up and operating is the next step.
I am very bullish about this joint technology development, conlcuded a notably pleased Shirkant Madhav Vaidya, Chairman of IndianOil.