The startup company Calysta Energy was formed in 2011 as a spinout of DNA2.0, the largest US-based provider of synthetic genes for industrial and academic customers. The new firm’s goal is for engineered organisms to use methane as a feedstock in producing liquid hydrocarbon fuels and high value chemicals that are cost-effective, scalable and reduce environmental impact. It looks like a very serious attempt. With the intellectual provenance from the parent company the chances are they know the basics and the path.
So far technology approaches to creating new fuels and chemicals have failed to achieve necessary market economics. Building, or putting together molecules isn’t a simple or easy thing. Cracking them apart is much easier – the technology used in oil refining.
The new take at Calysta is to use microbes to do the methane process heavy lifting. Calysta says that in contrast to current algae- and sugar-based methods, a methane-based biofuel platform is expected to produce fuel at less than half the cost of other biological methods, allowing direct competition with petroleum-based fuels.
At this stage the Calysta work is proprietary. Using the methane, the energy-rich component of natural gas as a new biological feedstock, is a virtually untapped energy source outside of heating and electricity generation. Natural gas, one of the world’s most abundant forms of energy, does not directly compete with food, land or water resources. Methane is widely available from large domestic deposits of shale gas, as well as landfills and other sources. The market place may someday convert all the organic waste to methane – and if it doesn’t nature probably will.
The technology seems to be based on Methanotrophs, bacteria that can use methane as the sole carbon and energy source for their growth. It was 2004 that the first complete genome sequence from an obligate methanotroph, Methylococcus capsulatus (Bath) (which is featured on Calysta’s website) was obtained (Ward et al.). One of the most surprising outcomes of the project, Ward et al. noted in their paper published in PLoS Biology, was evidence suggesting the existence of previously unsuspected metabolic flexibility in M. capsulatus.
Calysta is counting on its expertise in biocatalysis, synthetic biology and advanced bioengineering process design to develop bio-based processes, biological gas-to-liquids, or the firm’s name BioGTL that will operate more cheaply and efficiently than chemical processes. Calysta will use proprietary genetic optimization algorithms to enable the efficient development of bacteria that can convert methane to a variety of alkane fuels.
Calysta is smart enough to look beyond the standard classifications of hydrogen rich carbon resources. Plant photosynthesis, which adds the hydrogen back in with carbon is not especially efficient. A step up is to use plant matter in sugars and the biomass with fermentation to get to nearly a third of the energy into useful fuel. Pyrolysis, while much more expensive and energy input demanding can get to nearly half the useful energy of the feedstock. Calysta offers that methane in their process would be low energy cost and a 59% yield of energy usefulness going to a diesel fuel product.
At current methane production rates and pricing the idea looks good. It will look good for methane too far out from the pipelines. The idea has economic legs. The technology seems to be on a firm footing. This one may well be part of the future if oil products of the heavy fuels gasoline on up to diesel stay high. We wish the new company good luck.