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Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy

The projects that comprise ARPA-E's REMOTE program, short for "Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy," seek to enable highly efficient biological conversion of methane to liquid fuels for small-scale deployment. Specifically REMOTE focuses on improving the energy efficiency and carbon yield of biological routes from methane to a useable form for fuel synthesis while also examining high-productivity methane conversion processes and bioreactor technologies.
For a detailed technical overview about this program, please click here. 


Design of Metalloenzymes for Methane Activation

The team from Arzeda will use computational enzyme design tools and their knowledge of biological engineering and chemistry to create new synthetic enzymes to activate methane. Organisms that are capable of using methane as an energy and carbon source are typically difficult to engineer. To address this challenge, Arzeda will develop technologies essential to creating modular enzymes that can be used in other organisms. The team will combine computation enzyme design with experimental methods to improve enzyme activity and help direct methane more effectively into metabolism for fuel production. Arzeda's new enzymes could transform the way methane is activated, and would be more efficient than current chemical and biological approaches.

Calysta Energy, Inc.

Novel Bioreactor Designs Based on High Mass Transfer Chemical Reactors for Methanotroph Fermentation

Calysta Energy will develop a new bioreactor technology to enable the efficient biological conversion of methane into liquid fuels. While reasonably efficient, Gas-to-liquid (GTL) conversion is difficult to accomplish without costly and complex infrastructure. Biocatalysts are anticipated to reduce the cost of GTL conversion. Calysta will address this by using computational fluid dynamics to model best existing high mass transfer bioreactor designs and overcome existing limitations. Calysta will make the newly developed technology available to the broader research community, which could help other research groups to quickly test and commercialize their methane conversion processes.

Coskata, Inc.

Activated Methane to Butanol

Coskata is engineering methanol fermentation into an anaerobic microorganism to enable a low-cost biological approach for liquid fuel production. Currently, the most well-known processes available to convert methane into fuel are expensive and energy-intensive. Coskata is constructing strains of the anaerobic bacteria to efficiently and cost-effectively convert activated methane to butanol, an alcohol that can be used directly as part of a fuel blend. Coskata's process involves molecular genetics to introduce and control specific genes, and to inactivate undesired pathways, together with fermentation optimization of constructed strains. Further, the team will work to increase the tolerance of these strains to high concentrations of butanol, an essential element of the technology.

GreenLight Biosciences, Inc.

Highly Productive Cell-Free Bioconversion of Methane

GreenLight Biosciences is developing a cell-free bioreactor that can convert large quantities of methane to fuel in one step. This technology integrates biological and chemical processes into a single process by separating and concentrating the biocatalysts from the host microorganisms. This unique "cell-free" approach is anticipated to improve the productivity of the reactor without increasing cost. GreenLight's system can be erected onsite without the need for massive, costly equipment. The process uses natural gas and wellhead pressure to generate the power needed to run the facility. Any carbon dioxide that is released in the process is captured, condensed and pumped back into the well to maintain reservoir pressure and reduce emissions. This technology could enable a scalable, mobile facility that can be transported to remote natural gas wells as needed.

LanzaTech, Inc.

Innovative Bioreactor Designs for Process Intensification in Biological Natural Gas Conversion

LanzaTech will combine methane fermentation expertise, experimental bioreactor characterization, as well as advanced simulation and modeling to develop a novel gas fermentation system that can significantly improve gas to liquid mass transfer, or the rate at which methane gas is delivered to a biocatalyst. This unique bioreactor concept seeks to efficiently transfer methane to microbial biocatalysts by reducing the energy demand required for high transfer rates. Although methane is a flammable gas, the new technology also maintains the safe operation necessary for a small-scale conversion process. This bioreactor design would significantly reduce capital and operating costs, enabling small-scale deployment of fuel production from remote natural gas sources. LanzaTech's new gas fermentation system could help produce liquid fuel at a cost of less than $2 per gallon of gasoline equivalent.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

PEPMase - Enzyme Engineering for Direct Methane Conversion

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is genetically engineering a bacterium called Methylococcus in order to produce an enzyme that binds methane with a common fuel precursor to create a liquid fuel. This process relies on methylation, a reaction that requires no oxygen or energy inputs but has never been applied to methane conversion." First, LBNL will construct a unique enzyme called a "PEP methylase" from an existing enzyme. The team will then bioengineer new metabolic pathways for assimilating methane and conversion to liquid fuels.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Bio-GTL: Direct and Indirect Paths of Methane Activation and Conversion to Biofuels

The Bioinformatics and Metabolic Engineering Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by Prof. Greg Stephanopoulos will develop a comprehensive process to directly convert methane into a usable transportation fuel in a single step. MIT's unique technologies integrate methane activation with fuel synthesis, two distinct processes required to convert methane that are typically performed separately. Today, activating methane prior to converting it to useful fuel is a high-temperature, energy-intensive process. MIT's unique approach would use nitrate instead of oxygen to oxidize the methane, which could increase the energy efficiency of methane activation and ultimately convert it to fuel. Further, MIT will investigate the use of zeolite catalysts that have the potential to activate methane and convert it to methanol at very high efficiencies.

MOgene Green Chemicals, LLC

Biotransformation of Methane into N-Butanol by a Methanotrophic Cyanobacterium

MOgene Green Chemicals will engineer a photosynthetic organism for methane conversion that can use energy from both methane and sunlight. The first step in aerobic biological activation of methane requires oxygen and the introduction of energy in the form of heat. Organisms that use methane typically do so through a process that creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, losing energy-rich carbon molecules in the process. To address this, MOgene will engineer a "phototrophic" organism to convert methane that is capable of deriving additional energy from sunlight. This will allow the organism to naturally provide oxygen needed for methane conversion while recapturing any carbon dioxide that would have been released in the process. Consequently, MOgene's technology would be a more efficient and cost-effective way to activate methane, while producing n-butanol, a liquid fuel precursor.

Northwestern University

Engineering Multicopper Oxidases for Methane C-H Activation

Northwestern University and partners will leverage computational protein design to engineer and repurpose a natural catalyst to convert methane gas to liquid fuel. Current industrial processes to convert methane to liquid fuels are costly, or inefficient and wasteful. To address this, Northwestern University will alter natural catalysts to create versatile new protein catalysts that convert methane to methanol which can more easily integrate into fuel production pathways. Northwestern will also engineer an additional protein catalysts to couple, or join, two molecules of methane together, a process critical towards producing longer chain "hydrocarbons" similar to those found in gasoline. Northwestern University's simplified catalysts will provide a better alternative to existing methane converting enzymes and can be incorporated into multiple types of processes.

Oregon State University

Bio-Lamina-Plates Bioreactor for Enhanced Mass and Heat Transfer

Oregon State University (OSU) will develop a small-scale bioreactor that can enable high-rate, low cost bioconversion of methane to liquid fuel. Current systems to convert methane using microorganisms can be slow and inefficient due to the low rate at which methane gas and nutrients are transferred to biocatalysts as well as the build-up of toxins that affect the health of biocatalysts. Using an ultra-thin, stacked "Bio-Lamina-Plate" system OSU will attempt to improve the overall rate at which methane is transferred to the biocatalysts. This new reactor design also helps to improve the rate at which oxygen is provided and products are removed from the system. The reactor design improves the amount of surface exposed relative to the volume of biofilm and provides better heat transfer to improve overall reactor efficiency. Unlike reactors build using stainless steel, OSU's reactor may use low-cost materials such as plastic and glass, as well as simple fabrication techniques to reduce the bioreactor manufacturing costs.

Pennsylvania State University

Engineering a Methane-to-Acetate Pathway for Producing Liquid Biofuels

Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) is engineering a type of bacteria known as Methanosarcina acetivorans to produce acetate from methane gas. Current approaches to methane conversion are energy-intensive and result in substantial waste of carbon dioxide. Penn State will engineer a pathway for converting methane to a chemical called acetate by reversing the natural pathway for acetate to methanol conversion. This new approach is advantageous because it consumes carbon dioxide, produces energy-rich carbon-carbon bonds, and conserves electrons to make the molecules produced reactive and easy to combine with other molecules. The acetate generated can be used to form polymers that can be further processed into liquid fuels.

University of California, Davis

Synthetic Biology, Protein Engineering, and Semi-Biological Photocatalysis to Convert Methane to N-Butanol

The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) will engineer new biological pathways for bacteria to convert ethylene to a liquid fuel. Currently, ethylene is readily available and used by the chemicals and plastics industries to produce a wide range of useful products, but it cannot be cost-effectively converted to a liquid fuel like butanol, an alcohol that can be used directly as part of a fuel blend. UC Davis is addressing this problem with synthetic biology and protein engineering. The team will engineer ethylene assimilation pathways into a host organism and use that organism to convert ethylene into n-butanol, an important platform chemical with broad applications in many chemical and fuel markets. This technology could provide a transformative route from methane to liquid biofuels that is more efficient than ones found in nature.

University of California, Los Angeles

CUSB: A Platform Technology for the Renewable Production of Commodity Chemicals

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) seeks to develop a platform technology, Catalytic Units for Synthetic Biochemistry (CUSB) that will use enzymes in solution (i.e. in vitro) to convert carbohydrates into a wide variety of useful carbon compounds in extremely high yield. The use of enzymes in solution has advantages over whole-cell microorganisms. Enzymes can be concentrated much further than whole-cells which improves volumetric productivity. Additionally enzymes may be less sensitive to the production of compounds of interest that are typically toxic to whole-cells even at low concentrations. Yet most importantly, the use of specific enzymes provides a high degree of precision to direct carbon and energy efficiently from the feedstock to the final product. The team envisions catalytic breakdown modules that will reduce the carbohydrates to simpler compounds. Breakdown energy is released during this chemical process and can be stored in other high-energy chemicals. Additional catalytic modules will be added to utilize the carbon and energy from the breakdown module to build useful chemicals that can replace petroleum products. This process can potentially generate new markets by producing complex chemicals more economically and with higher energy efficiency than current methods. The team predicts that their technology can reduce the non-renewable energy input required for chemical production by more than 2.5 fold. The system can also provide large-scale production of chemicals that are too costly or too environmentally damaging to produce by current methods. During a prior ARPA-E IDEAS award, the team developed this platform technology. Now, as an addition to the ARPA-E REMOTE program, the UCLA team will further its research and demonstrate CUSB by building a prototype system that can produce isobutanol and terpene, at a much higher yield and productivity than has been previously achieved. The successful development of CUSB will represent a paradigm shift in the way high-volume commodity chemicals can be produced from renewable resources.

University of California, Los Angeles

High Efficiency Methanol Condensation Cycle (MC2)

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) will develop a high-efficiency, synthetic metabolic pathway that transforms methanol into n-butanol, a liquid fuel that can be used as a direct substitute for gasoline due to its high energy density. In nature, the process by which organisms that feed on methane convert it into fuel is inefficient, resulting in a substantial loss of carbon in the process. UCLA's synthetic metabolic pathway would oxidize the methanol into formaldehyde, convert the formaldehyde into an essential metabolite known as acetyl-CoA, and then condense the acetyl-CoA into n-butanol. In the end, UCLA's pathway would transform 4 parts methanol into 3 parts water and 1 part n-butanol while achieving 100% carbon conversion. UCLA will also attempt to move this synthetic metabolic pathway into organisms capable of biological methane activation to create a complete methane to n-butanol microbial production system.

University of Delaware

Synthetic Methylotrophy to Liquid Fuel

The University of Delaware (UD) is engineering new metabolic pathways to convert methane into liquid fuel. UD's technology targets high-efficiency activation of methane to methanol without the consumption of additional energy, followed by conversion to butanol. The two-stage technology is envisioned to recapture carbon dioxide --with no carbon dioxide emissions. The team will use metabolic engineering and synthetic biology techniques to enable methanol utilization in organisms that are not natively about to do so. This modification will allow the new organism to grow on methanol, and utilize the available energy to produce butanol. Butanol is a high-energy fuel, with chemical and physical properties that are compatible with the current gasoline-based technologies for transportation.

University of Michigan

Anaerobic Bioconversion of Methane to Methanol

The University of Michigan team will develop a biological approach to activate methane, the first step in creating a liquid fuel from natural gas. Current approaches to methane activation require the addition of oxygen and energy in the form of heat, which is inefficient and costly. The University of Michigan's multidisciplinary team will engineer a methane-generating microorganism that can activate methane without the need for these additional inputs. The University of Michigan will use computer models to understand the processes on a molecular level and predict the structure of new enzymes and chemical interactions. Once modeled and engineered, the University of Michigan's optimized organism and process would provide a way to produce butanol, a drop-in liquid fuel.
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