Engineered Bacteria to Upcycle CO2 to Chemicals on Industrial Scale

Dr. Richa Bobade

Sustainable industrialization is much sought after knowing the severe and irreversible damages caused to the environment due to extensive usage of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most commonly produced greenhouse gas by major industrial operations utilizing fossil fuels. The lesser-known fact about CO2 is that it can be used as feedstock for a range of industrial operations. CO2 is a critical industrial building component in everything from plastics to concrete and is generally used to produce low carbon fuel.

Researchers from Lanza Tech, a carbon capture company, and North-western University in Illinois have used synthetic biology to develop the first sustainable and scalable carbon-negative approach for producing acetone and isopropanol (IPA). They are widely used as industrial solvents and to make plastics, including acrylic glass and polypropylene. The production of acetone and propanol is usually done by propene cracking or reforming which are energy-intensive processes producing hazardous greenhouse gases. Acetone and IPA have a combined market value of over $10 billion (£7.4 billion). The group has addressed this issue with a novel idea of using genetically modified bacteria to ferment CO2 to commodity chemicals. This method assures significant environmental benefits besides utilizing low-cost waste gas feedstocks, such as industrial emissions and syngas.

The bacterium, Clostridium autoethanogenum, is known to naturally ferment carbon oxide gases for energy, resulting in ethanol as an end product. The Team selected this bacteria for genetic modification to ferment CO2 to desired chemicals. The entire process of genetic modification and chemical production was carried out in three steps. In the first step, the team mined C. autoethanogenum’s genome for enzymes that brought about the molecular transformation that enabled acetone or IPA production. This step was followed by introducing these enzymes in different strains of bacteria to optimize the production of acetone or IPA. After optimizing the strains for continuous process, the last step included scale-up of the process at an industrial scale in a 120-liter loop reactor connected to a carbon dioxide waste stream from a steel plant. Analyses revealed that the process locks in 1.79kg and 1.17kg of CO2 into acetone and IPA, respectively per kilogram of the end product after offsetting carbon emissions during the process. The findings are published in Nature Biotechnology on February 21.

By using the standard techniques, the discovery and optimization process could have required a years’ time. However, the work was sped up to a matter of a few weeks using vitro cell-free tools. This technique enabled the researchers to control and study biochemical reactions without interference from other complex interactions present in living organisms. Life cycle analysis has confirmed a negative carbon footprint for the end products. The Group leader Micheal Jewett from the University explained that “A key feature is that acetone and isopropanol can be separated using similar technology as ethanol, which allows us to use the same (LanzaTech) plant infrastructure and switch between products by simply changing the microbe.” He further added, “This is a paradigm shift to the chemical industry, where a plant is typically purpose-built for a certain product and production cannot be easily changed.”

The method so developed may pave the way to redefine the future of biomaking of chemicals assuring carbon-negative processes and sustainable industrial production.

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Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar

Dr. Mashelkar is only the third Indian engineer to have been elected (1998) as Fellow of Royal Society (FRS), London in the twentieth century. He was elected Foreign Associate of US National Academy of Science (2005) and also National Academy of Engineering (2003), Associate Foreign Member, American Academy of Arts & Sciences (2011), Fellow of Royal Academy of Engineering, U.K. (1996), Foreign Fellow of Australian Technological Science and Engineering Academy (2008), Corresponding Member of Australian Academy of Sciences (2017), Fellow of World Academy of Arts & Science, USA (2000), Fellow of US National Academy of Inventors (2017), the first ever Indian from India to be elected and TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize (2018), which is the highest science award of The World Academy of Science.

In 2006, he received the ‘Star of Asia’ Award at the hands of former President of USA, George Bush (Sr). The President of India honoured Dr. Mashelkar with three of the highest civilian awards, namely Padmashri (1991), Padmabhushan (2000) and Padma Vibhushan (2014).

Prof. Satishchandra Ogale

Prof. Satishchandra B. Ogale has had a long 40 years of experience in higher education and research.  He has over 500 publications in international journals, three co-edited books with Springer, Wiley and Elsevier, and 10 granted US patents based on research done in India. 
He is a Reviewer as well as Advisory Board member of many high impact International Journals and is also a popular science writer in regional language marathi.
He has won many Awards, Prizes, and National and International recognitions. He has given numerous invited, plenary and keynote talks in National and International conferences and has supervised over 65 Ph.D. students. 
Prof. Ogale has been a Visiting Professor/ Scientist in many institutions in the USA and Europe on several occasions.

Anupama Engineer

She has previously worked as a Scientist at Agharkar research Institute and at higher management level at Thomas Baker Bioscience Private Limited. She has also taught graduate and post graduate students in Biotechnology & Microbiology during her tenure as a lecturer in Royal College, Mumbai and as a Counselor for IGNOU Biotechnology course. Anupama, is a multitasker with few roles like, entrepreneur, Scientist, manager, a doting mother and many more. Teaching and educating is her passion and she takes every effort to encourage fundamental learning. Anupama holds a vast experience in Start-up processes.

Dr Smita Chaturvedi
Smita is an experimental condensed matter physicist. The quest for multifunctional materials motivates her. Smita finished her PhD from RDVV Jabalpur and BARC Mumbai in the year 2002 and worked as a research associate in IIT Mumbai and Oakland University, Michigan. Smita was awarded as a Fulbright Nehru Academic and Professional excellence fellow in 2018-19. Smita holds more than a decade of research and teaching experience. She possesses good knowledge about education system and research opportunities in India as well as abroad. Music and gardening are her mindful meditations.
Dr. Priyadarshini Karve
Dr Priyadarshini Karve has worked in the areas of household energy, decentralised waste-to-fuel technologies, climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainable and climate-ready urbanisation, etc. She runs her own social green enterprise Samuchit Enviro Tech in Pune, focused on enabling access to sustainable products and services. She is also a co-founder of OrjaBox, a startup promoting solar thermal technologies. Dr Karve is a Founder Member of Clean Energy Access Network (CLEAN - a multi-state society of decentralised renewable energy practitioners and entrepreneurs) and Cleaner Cooking Coalition (CCC - an international organisation focused on promoting user-centric cooking energy technologies that are good for health as well as climate). She is also the National Convener of Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change (INECC - focused on climate justice issues and working to bring people's voices in policy choices). Her work has been recognised by several national and international awards and honours.
Sanjay Khare
Sanjay Khare ,after his graduation in Electrical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, in 1986 has been associated with major Japanese & European Automotive OEMs in Indian Subcontinent for 35 years . Widely travelled across Europe & Asia , he has held positions across diverse functions of Automotive Corporations.
In his current role as Board Member and Vice President at Skoda Auto Volkswagen India , he is Chief Sustainability Catalyst to guide actions at Skoda Auto Volkswagen India along with the sister brands Audi, Porsche & Lamborghini.
He leads an active Climate Resilience program where the automotive major in India has already achieved Zero Waste to Landfill, Water Positive & Zero liquid Discharge Certification, Zero Accidents , targeting an 18.5 MW of installed Roof Top Solar plant at a single Automotive site in India in 2021 and fully Carbon Neutral Production by 2025.
Sanjay has done his Executive MBA from Management development Institute ,Gurgaon specialising in Strategy & Marketing . He has active interests in driving Cultural Change, Competency building , Human Motivation topics while adopting/ innovating the technological advancements and total quality revolution.He is also a Qualified Independent Director registered with Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Govt. of India. An active speaker on Automotive & Sustainability topics on National & International forums.
In personal life, he is an Endurance Cyclist having participated in many adventure ride expeditions . He also spends his time in developing mastery on Indian Classical Music instrument Sitar.