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Researching microbes to capture and store industrial CO2

28/07/2011

  • Belgium
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Belgian SME Biomim-Greenloop has set up a European research project into accelerated natural bio-based alternatives for carbon capture and storage in energy-intensive industries.

Billions of euro in public funding are pouring into carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects across Europe. A bio-based alternative that does not require an energy-intensive process to concentrate the CO2 to capture and store it as a solid rather than escape-prone gas would be a welcome innovation.

Plants are an obvious example of natural CO2 capture and storage. But they are not nature’s only engineers. Marine animals turn CO2 dissolved in water into carbonates for shells. Bacteria are responsible for no less than 40% of the world’s chalk cliffs! The innovative CO2SolStock project is studying microbes’ creation of carbonates – in the process removing CO2 from the atmosphere – with a view to commercialisation.

The three-year €3 million Seventh European Framework Programme (FP7) project was initiated by Brussels-based Biomim-Greenloop in April 2009. This young SME – founded 2006 – takes inspiration from nature to help clients become more sustainable.

In CO2SolStock, it linked up with four university partners, each bringing specialist expertise:

  • University of Edinburgh – deep subterranean habitats;
  • University of Granada – mineralising bacteria in saline environments;
  • University of Lausanne – mineralising bacteria in tropical soils; and
  • Delft University of Technology – process engineering applications of microbes.

The challenges are identifying cheap and abundant sources of calcium not originating from the dissolution of carbonates in the first place, keeping the biological systems ticking over, scaling up to the industrial level, and speed: some African trees and their bacteria store up to 5 kg of CO2 equivalent every year, while other soil bacteria have allowed researchers to fix 40 kg of CO2 in five hours.

From the initial work of studying microbes in their natural habitats, the researchers aim to identify those that are most efficient at sequestration, speed them up and apply them in two industrial pilot projects in sectors such as steel or paper. Final results are to be disseminated in March 2012.

The University of Lausanne together with the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland have already charted the symbiosis between the African iroko tree – often called African teak – and bacteria in fungi that sequester CO2 as a mineral in the soil around it. This enhances the soil’s fertility. The University of Granada has identified 20 mineralising bacteria in marine environments and is studying their metabolism.

If the project succeeds, EU legislation should be adapted to include calcium and carbonate in an organisation’s carbon balance, according to Biomim-Greenloop. Companies with carbon or calcium in their waste stream could find themselves with a valuable new product. Potential side-benefits of the research have been identified in the field of “bio-cements” – microbes that turn CO2 into carbonates could be used to repair cracks in building structures for example.

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