GreenTech: Liberating Chemistry From Oil

Throughout history, we’ve looked upon nature and marveled… and drawn inspiration from the world to imagine, create, and bring our visions from our mind’s eye to life. In this, our path to a cleaner, more organic future is no different. We say that because once again, we’ve turned to the original engineer, nature, to borrow from her brilliance to solve our problems. This time, we’re using electrocatalysis in the production of fossil free chemicals.

To understand electrocatalysis, just imagine a chemical reaction, but with electricity. It essentially involves a chemical reaction that either needs to take in or put out electrical power to run. This process can, and is, beginning to be used to create clean, fossil-free chemicals. We’re pretty happy about this, since a substantial amount of our fossil fuels are being used up by the chemicals space, matched or surpassed only by sectors like transport and direct power generation.

The Elephant In The Room

Chatter in the chemical space is, everyone sees the fossil fuel elephant in the room, and they are ready to acknowledge it. As such, focus is shifting to goals such as the development of sustainable methods of carbon fuels synthetization and chemical building block creation from small molecules such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2), and water. It’s called sustainable catalysis, and it’s being touted as an important possible solution to clean chemicals created with zero help from fossil fuels.

To take a page from nature by utilizing bioderived and bio-inspired approaches for electrocatalysis could afford substantial benefits. While some of these are obvious, like the reduction of carbon emissions, our favorite is the potential to valorize waste streams… which we have an abundance of. Biomass could be used for advanced carbon-based catalysts, carbon conversion, and water splitting systems… we could go on.

Remember third grade science, when they made you learn that plants eat light? Us too, and if life isn’t a circle, we don’t know what is… because here we are using it in real life. Recently, researchers have figured out how to create an artificial photosynthesis (how plants create food from sunlight) that is ten times more efficient than has ever been created. They’re using the machinery of photosynthesis to make chemicals, and this method could one day be used to create all sorts of things.

In nature, plants use photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into carbohydrates using energy from the sun. What researchers have done, is to turn carbon dioxide and water into energy-dense fuels. This could give us the alternative chemicals we need to use in place of fossil fuels. We should care about this… because it won’t matter how many “green” solutions we come up with if we run out of raw materials.

Corporate Alchemy

One company, Solugen, is doing its own alchemy in this space through developing a clean method of creating industrial chemicals out of corn syrup. Based in Houston, Solugen has been named one of the world’s most innovative companies, making it all the way to second place on Fast Company’s 2022 list. Reaching a valuation of over $1 billion, the company is solidifying a place in the space through the sale of chemicals to companies aiming for a smaller carbon footprint.

The company has been on a funding spree, raising cash to build green chemical factories where they use enzymes and catalysts to make chemicals without fossil fuels. Their ultimate aim is to use a combination of enzymatic and catalysis manufacturing processes to make cheap, high-performance chemicals. Their first factory has been plugging away for a bit over a year and has managed to produce over 10,000 metric tons of various molecules from corn sugar feedstock.

So, we know that creating chemicals without using fossil fuels is possible. As we continue to develop and scale these capabilities, with each step, we’re getting that much closer to a cleaner world. And we’ll be doing it using techniques that keep our habitat intact. We’re pleased to see it, as every action we take in that direction is one more step that needed to be made anyway.

We expect to continue to see researchers hard at work developing ways for us to live comfortably, while harmonizing as much as possible with our surroundings. Just earlier this year, scientists at Scotland’s University of Glasgow were able to demonstrate a new way to create what are known as anilines, which humans use in everything from dyes and plastics to acetaminophen.

It’s efforts like these that continue to bring us closer to true green solutions… help us move past any unintended greenwashing and truly innovate our way to a better existence. Our current methodologies, which depend heavily on fossil fuels and precious metals, are energy-intensive, efficient, and dirty. But… this is changing. Eventually, for good. Come back next week, we’ll have more from the cutting edge of green tech. See you then!