Methane Munching Microbes Create Everyday Products

Bioengineering Company Looks For Methane Bioconversion Pilot Plant Locations
Intrexon Corporation, a biotechnology company based in Virginia, has developed technology to convert methane to higher value chemicals through the use of bioengineered bacteria. The bacteria, called methanotrophs, use methane as their sole source of energy. They convert it into a blend of chemicals including a viable biofuel called isobutanol and every-day products like car tires and the bone cement used in hip replacements.

Intrexon has already built a successful pilot plant in California (see image below; photo credit: Intrexon) and is currently looking for locations to establish two additional pilot plants.  Their innovative technology is a great example of new uses for natural gas resources and would create a unique market for methane bioconversion in their chosen location.

The Main Ingredient
Natural gas is a hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, but also includes a blend of other chemicals known as natural gas liquids. In Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, natural gas is used in the surrounding communities and by industries to generate power and provide heating. Methane is important to the fertilizer industry, and is a major ingredient in the production of ammonia at Agrium’s Fort Saskatchewan facility. Still, methane is used less frequently as feedstock in local industry than the other chemicals in natural gas, or crude oil.

The Fuel of the Future
The methanotrophs bioengineered by Intrexon consume methane, and produce various organic compounds used as key ingredients in day-to-day products. They also produce isobutanol, which has been proven to be an effective biofuel that burns cleaner, corrodes less, contains more energy, and is also compatible with existing pipelines. The California plant produces primarily isobutanol to aid in the development of gasoline alternatives. The chemicals produced by Intrexon’s methanotrophs are key ingredients to materials in the construction, automotive, and medical industries.

Intrexon has developed their technology over the last three years to increase the amount of chemicals produced from the methanotrophs compared to other similar microbes, and in March 2016 saw a greater than fifty percent increase in yield since November 2015. Additionally, by using the methane in natural gas (the most inexpensive carbon source in industrial fermentation) as the sole feedstock in the process, production costs are also decreased.

Creating a Hub of Innovative Technology
Due to increased natural gas production in the United States and decreased Canadian exports south of the border, Canada possesses an excess of natural gas. Intrexon’s technology could provide a way to utilize the excess Canadian methane by converting it to a more valuable product. Once converted, these products could be transported within Canada, to the United States, or to markets overseas. By processing basic chemical compounds like methane to produce more complicated and specific chemicals, they can be sold at a higher price, and further support the local economy.

This is an example of the type of unique technology that aligns well with Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association’s vision to enhance value added activities and innovation. “[Hosting this type of pilot facility] would develop highly skilled jobs, and could add to the competitive advantages of the Heartland area by creating a core of innovative technology. It would put a feather in the cap of the Industrial Heartland if we were able to further shape the petrochemical industry,” says AIHA Executive Director Mark Plamondon, who was in attendance for Intrexon’s presentation at the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) Conference this June.

 

Written by:
Lindsay Korol
Summer Project and Research Assistant
Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association