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Biotech, National Lab Partner on Gas-to-Liquid Conversion

Natural gas flaring from oil refineries


Calysta Energy, a biotechnology company in Menlo Park, California and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California are developing a biological process for converting methane to liquid fuel. Financial aspects of the agreement were not disclosed. Livermore National Lab is a facility of the U.S. Department of Energy.

The project aims to devise a technique for transforming methane, the primary component of natural gas, into methanol, a liquid fuel that is more easily stored and transported than a gaseous product. Some of the natural gas extracted in the U.S., as a by-product of oil production for example, is flared or vented off into the environment. A simple, economical process for capturing and converting methane gas could offer another productive use of the fuel.

Calysta produces genetically engineered enzymes and bacteria that act as catalysts to encourage chemical reactions in hydrocarbon compounds for the production of fuels and chemicals. The company uses DNA sequencing, to identify the order of nucleic acids in genes, and bioinformatics to construct algorithms to design biologically-based catalysts to generate the desired chemical reactions.

Calysta says its processes work in relatively mild conditions (42 degrees C, 108 F) and can produce fuel at less than half the cost of other biological processes, such as sugar fermentation or algae.

Bioengineered enzymes are used regularly in pharmaceuticals, but their experience with energy production is so far limited. In the partnership, Calysta is interested in gaining the Livermore Lab’s experience in reactor technology and advanced industrial processes that use three-dimensional printing to deliver substances like enzymes to surfaces.

Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S., and most of its emissions are the result of human activities, such as oil and gas drilling, other industries, agriculture, and waste management. Joshuah Stolaroff, the lead scientist for Livermore Lab, envisions a small reactor with enzymes that mimic natural biological processes to convert the methane produced in these facilities to methanol.

“Harnessing these enzymes,” says Stolaroff, “could greatly expand the range of methane sources that would be economic to mitigate and could have additional industrial applications.”

Calysta Energy was founded in 2011. The company completed its first round of venture financing in December 2013, raising $3 million.

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