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CO2-munching microbes explored by Lehigh Cement

Apr, 18 2012

The cement company next to Los Altos Hills and Cupertino is partnering with the technology company Oakbio, Inc., to research processes that could reduce greenhouse gasses and create commercial products.

Hungry microbes that munch on C02 gas, and in turn create viable commercial products, could herald a whole new future for companies under increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it was announced Tuesday by Lehigh Southwest Cement and Oakbio Inc.

Lehigh Plant Manager Henrik Wesseling, along with two officials of the Sunnyvale-based technology company Oakbio—President Brian Sefton and CEO Russell Howard—said at a press conference that the two companies are partnering on research to perfect Oakbio’s Carbon Capture and Conversion process.

“This technology, if it meets its dreams and its criteria for success that we hope to find, it could literally change the world,” Howard said.

In something akin to a neighbor asking to borrow a cup of sugar, Oakbio officials approached Wesseling a little over a year ago asking if they could capture some of Lehigh’s CO2 for use in their research.

Howard said they took some of the CO2 to the company’s headquarters in Sunnyvale to test the process. When that was successful, Oakbio set up research station at Lehigh in the foothills just outside of Cupertino, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

Wesseling, calling the new process an “innovative, novel, creative” one, said it is unique from other processes because Oakbio looks “at greenhouse gas emissions not as emissions, but as resources” to create commercial products.

The conversion process has the potential to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also create profitable consumer products, like biodegradable plastics, industrial lubricants, and even cosmetic colorings and perfume scents, Howard said.

And while other companies are developing ways for algae to eat CO2 gasses, a process that can take up to five to 10 square miles of ponds and depends on sunlight, Howard said Oakbio’s process uses microbes in water that need no sunlight and rely on CO2 as their sole carbon source, using a much smaller footprint.

As the microbes consume the CO2, they create a “cloudy cabernet”, he said, that results in biopolymers for biodegradable plastics that could replace petroleum-based plastics, as well as contribute to the manufacture of other commercial products.

The soupy mixture contains carotenoids, which can be used as colorants for cosmetics, foods and other consumer products, Howard said. The fatty acids and alcohols resulting from the process are useful as industrial lubricants and surfactants. Even fragrance for perfumes can be harvested from the microbes.

“We know the process works, now we need to measure it and make it better,”Howard said. a company co-founded by a Cupertino native

Perfecting the process and putting it into commercial use could take years, Oakbio officials said. They said they could start with smaller products as they scale upward as a company.

“We don’t have to be a Goliath to make money in this company,” said Sefton, who grew up in the area and is a Monta Vista High School alumnus.

The two companies said they would continue the partnership through the development of the Carbon Capture and Conversion process. Eventually the process will be transferred to other industries that produce greenhouse gasses.

The news conference was attended by government officials from both Cupertino and Sunnyvale, who praised the companies for partnering together pursuing the carbon-capturing process.

"I’m happy to see that our neighboring cement plant is taking the lead in this," along with Sunnyvale neighbor Oakbio, said Cupertino Vice Mayor Orrin Mahoney.

The press conference was perhaps one of the last public events for Wesseling in Cupertino. After four years as plant manager he is being transferred back to Lehigh’s parent company headquarters, Heidelberg Cement in Germany, to lead the company’s global fuel optimization program. His last day is April 26. He is being replaced by an interim manager, Axel Conrads, Lehigh’s Region West Vice President of Cement Operations.

By Pam Marino

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