Bacteria turn syngas into specialty chemicals

A german company, Evonik,  has uncovered a strain of bacteria that for the first time is able to turn syngas into specialty chemicals thus creating a new use for waste gases.

The company says that it has shown that the bacteria can turn syngas – gas mixtures consisting primarily of carbon monoxide or of carbon dioxide and hydrogen – into pure 2-hydroxyisobutyric acid, one of the precursors in toughened glass. It claims that it could also be used to produce derivatives for the cosmetics industry, or C4 alcohols for the paints and varnishes industry.

“We have shown that there is a safe way of using bacteria to turn syngas into a variety of products in the future,” says Peter Nagler, Evonik’s chief innovation officer.

Syngases can be generated from municipal or agricultural waste, or from the waste gases emitted by industries such as steel production. It has been used for synthesising chemicals for decades, but Evonik claims that this is the first time that it has been used to produce such specialty chemicals.

In its hunt to find bacteria capable of turning carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen into more valuable molecules, Evonik looked to earth’s earliest history – to a time when oxygen was not yet present in earth’s atmosphere. Certain microorganisms today still contain the genetic information for these processes. Evonik has used their enzymes to create a ‘cell factory’.

The company admits, however, that it is still some way from commercialising its development.

“We have a long way to go before we can use bacteria for converting syngas to high-quality specialty chemicals on a large industrial scale,” says Thomas Haas, head of biotechnology at Creavis, Evonik’s research unit. “It will still take a couple of years until it is ready for the market.”


You don’t know what syngas is? 

Syngas, or synthesis gas, is a fuel gas mixture consisting primarily of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and very often some carbon dioxide. The name comes from its use as intermediates in creating synthetic natural gas (SNG) and for producing ammonia or methanol. Syngas is also used as an intermediate in producing synthetic petroleum for use as a fuel or lubricant via the Fischer–Tropsch process and previously the Mobil methanol to gasoline process. Syngas is combustible and often used as a fuel of internal combustion engines and it has less than half the energy density of natural gas.