U.S.-based Calysta Energy Inc. and NatureWorks LLC have announced research collaboration looking at the transformation of methane into the lactic acid building blocks needed to produce bioplastics.
The multi-year R&D project aims to develop a practical, world-scale production process for fermenting methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into lactic acid, the building block for polylactic acid, lactide intermediates and polymers made from renewable materials. If the collaboration is successful, the production cost of NatureWorks' Ingeo PLA bioplastic would be substantially reduced.
Methane is generated by the natural decomposition of plant materials and is a component of natural gas. Methane is also generated from post-consumer organic waste, waste-water treatment, landfill decomposition and anaerobic digestion. If successful, the technology could directly access carbon from any of these sources. Determining the feasibility of methane as a commercially viable feedstock for lactic acid may take up to five years, according to Minnetonka, Minn.-based NatureWorks.
“If proven through this R&D collaboration, the new technology could be revolutionary … the direct conversion of methane will greatly simplify the number of steps and operations needed to convert carbon into performance consumer products,” said Marc Verbruggen, president and CEO of NatureWorks. “This could structurally lower the cost of producing Ingeo.”
Currently, Ingeo relies on carbon from feedstocks such as corn and cane sugar.
In parallel with the collaboration, NatureWorks is continuing to investigate “second generation” cellulosic sources of carbon. In southeast Asia, opportunities exist for harvesting cellulosic sugars from bagasse, a byproduct of sugarcane processing.
The R&D collaboration with Calysta Energy of Menlo Park, Calif., allows NatureWorks to investigate feedstock diversification and a structurally simplified, lower-cost Ingeo production platform. Calysta Energy is developing its BioGTC (biological gas-to-chemicals) platform for biological conversion of methane to high value chemicals. For NatureWorks, methane could be an additional feedstock several generations removed from simple plant sugars.
Alan Shaw, CEO of Calysta Energy, said: “Calysta's proprietary technology enables a novel route from a significant greenhouse gas to high-value industrial chemicals such as lactic acid. This approach demonstrates the power of biology compared to chemical transformation. Specific products, such as lactic acid, would be extremely difficult to make economically from methane using traditional catalysts.”
The companies will share commercialization rights for select products developed under the agreement.