Turning Waste Methane Into Profit

When I was a kid, I’d see flames from factory stacks and imagine workers fueling the fire in order to make the weather warmer. I thought it was a wasted effort – especially in winter. I never realized the flares were burning methane from various processes deep inside the factory.

Another person who pays attention to the wasted efforts of stack flames is Ramon Gonzalez, Rice University chemical and biomolecular engineering professor and director of its new Advanced Biomanufacturing Initiative. According to a recent press release, Gonzalez says that waste methane can and should be turned into profit.

He said that waste methane burned off in 2014 alone could have been transformed via biomanufacturing into seven important organic chemicals — methanol, ethylene, propylene, butadiene, xylene, benzene and toluene — in amounts sufficient to meet 100 percent of industry’s needs that year.

“Between flared methane, waste-treatment facilities situated near population centers and agricultural facilities around the country, we have a lot of feedstock,” says Gonzalez. “You might say these are little things, but when you add them up — and we have run that number — we find we can produce most of the chemicals that we need today.”

Gonzalez and his team of researchers pointed out that environmental, geopolitical and economic factors are already pushing manufacturers to look at smaller, better-distributed solutions to pressing needs. The science of programming bacteria like fast-growing Escherichia coli to make chemicals using genome-editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas-9 is rapidly catching up to the demand, notes Gonzalez.

“Do you need to produce millions of tons of chemicals?” he asked. “How are you going to do that if you have a small plant and still make an impact? Well, if you have hundreds or thousands of small plants, of course you’re going to make an impact.

“You can leverage an ‘economies of unit number’ model, which can be defined as a shift from a small number of high-capacity units or facilities to a large number of units or facilities operating at a smaller scale. The good news is that, as we demonstrate in this paper, industrial biomanufacturing can both support and benefit from economies of unit number.”

You can read the press release here.

Traci-bio-photo.jpgTraci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s Senior Digital Editor. While she’s now privy to the source of the flames shooting from stacks, she still doesn’t understand how socks mysteriously disappear in the dryer. You can email her your theories at tpurdum@putman.net