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Bioreactor by VITO (Flanders) turns CO₂ into raw materials

An innovative method to convert CO₂ from industrial processes into useful basic raw materials: that is exactly what VITO, one of Flanders' strategic research centers, has developed. The entire conversion process takes place in a high-pressure bioplant, where specially designed microorganisms break down CO₂ into basic components that can be used by industrial players. The heart of the fermenter is a 10-liter reactor vessel in which the bacterial cultures go to work. 

From theory to practice through biotech

On paper, it is a logical method. Carbon – the C in CO₂ - is the main ingredient of hundreds of basic substances used in the chemical and broad industry sectors. By capturing and converting CO₂ from the stack, the greenhouse gas can be kept out of the atmosphere and used to produce useful raw materials. This is the essence of climate solutions known as carbon capture & utilization (CCU). 

The practice is a lot more complex than the theory. CO₂ is a very stable molecule, which means that a lot of energy is needed to convert it into another molecule. Such a process therefore only yields climate benefits when renewable energy, not energy from fossil sources, is used. 

VITO uses biotechnology for the conversion. An advantage of this method is that the conversion can take place under relatively mild conditions, such as a lower temperature. “Thanks to biotech, it’s possible to make relatively complex molecules, such as organic acids and polymers,” explains Heleen De Wever, who leads a team at VITO that specializes in biotechnological solutions to make industrial processes more sustainable and efficient. 

Microorganisms to the rescue

The conversion can take place under high pressure (up to 10 bar), because CO₂ and other gases then dissolve more easily in the liquid in which the bacteria are working. The fermenter – which VITO designed itself – also has membrane filters that can be used to increase the quantity of microorganisms in the reactor. Both factors can make the process more efficient. 

In some cases, genetically modified bacteria handle the conversion process and make a wider range of products from CO₂

We are currently working around two types of conversions. On the one hand, we make basic chemicals, such as isobutene, from CO₂ and hydrogen. On the other hand, we convert CO₂, hydrogen and oxygen into organic acids, such as lactic acid, which is used as a feedstock for the production of bioplastics. Under high pressure, CO₂ and the other gases dissolve more easily, which increases the efficiency of the conversion plant. But at the same time, that high pressure mustn’t interfere with the proper functioning of the bacteria. It comes down to finding the right balance. 

Heleen De Wever
project manager at VITO

The high pressure and the use of potentially explosive gas mixtures such as hydrogen and oxygen require special safety measures. “All values are measured continuously and can be monitored online. If a potentially dangerous gas mixture were to be formed, automatic actions are taken or the installation shuts down,” says De Wever.

Final test phase

BioRECO2VER, the European research project that made the new VITO bioreactor possible, has been running for 3.5 years and is now entering its final phase. In this phase, VITO will test what the effect is on the process when working with real emissions captured at companies. 

The research work will also be evaluated technically and economically to decide whether and how the technique can be applied on an industrial scale

Research at VITO is done as much as possible in collaboration with the industry. Companies that emit greenhouse gases, parties active in purification and biotechnological valorization, and end users all participate in this project. 

Heleen De Wever
project manager at VITO

More to come?

Can biotechnology be used on a large scale for the conversion of greenhouse gases? In Flanders, another player is already working on a similar application as the one developed by VITO. ArcelorMittal’s steel plant in Ghent is launching a bioinstallation that converts carbon monoxide into ethanol. 

“I'm sure there will be more such installations on a large scale, but they involve trajectories that still require time,” De Wever concludes. “The price tag also plays a role in the breakthrough of biofermentation of greenhouse gas.”

Nonetheless, step by step, research and corporate players are joining forces to develop sustainable environmental technology – not in the least in Flanders! 

More info

VITO
Reported by
newspaper De Tijd
3 August 2021

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