The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the “promise of biofuels made from non-food products is still a long way off.” The article’s accompanying chart assesses the status and outlook of biofuels according to their feedstocks – ranging from corn and switchgrass to algae. But the chart is missing a new and fast-advancing category of fuels produced from a feedstock that is not grown, harvested or even visible. The feedstock is CO2, and this is the category to watch.
How does it work? The process employs engineered cyanobacteria as living, fuel-producing factories. Photosynthetic by nature, they capture sunlight and consume CO2 in order to grow. However, by altering their metabolism, we have redirected the output of this natural process from biomass to fuels. The conversion of CO2 to fuel is direct and continuous, in sharp contrast to the multi-step retrieval of sugars or oils from plant or algal matter – whether newly grown and harvested or buried in the earth’s crust over millennia. Moreover, this process upcycles industrial waste CO2 that would otherwise enter the atmosphere – giving governments around the world an economical option for carbon mitigation.
The CO2-to-fuel pathway is now approaching industrialization, with potential for significant impact in the near term. In fact, at demonstration sale, the process has already surpassed the 2018 productivity target set by the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technology Office for algal biofuels (accessible here).
An entirely new category, CO2-recycled fuels, can help the industry “snap out of a dormant phase” far sooner than was previously thought possible. For this reason, it’s imperative that new and potentially industry-changing pathways be considered for government support alongside the traditional feedstocks.