Groundbreaking e-Propane project aims to explore the potential of microbially produced propane in sustainable manufacturing of plastics

The e-Propane project is a newly launched one-of-a-kind feasibility study that aims to produce propane from CO2 and hydrogen using genetically engineered microbes. The 2-year co-research initiative bringing together academia and several industry partners is funded by Business Finland and led by professor Silvan Scheller from Aalto University. Borealis is part of the project and is looking forward to learning more about the potential of microbial pathways to renewable feedstock for plastics production, closely linking the initiative to the SPIRIT programme.

 Professor Silvan Scheller is an organic chemist with a background in enzyme catalysis and microbiology. He is leading the e-Propane project “Proof of concept for a direct CO2-to-propane conversion via genetically engineered microbes and assessing requirements for its implementation in bioreactors and the economic competitiveness” involving academic partners from Aalto University, Tampere University and Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, as well as industrial partners from Borealis, Neste, Fortum, Q Power and Solar Foods.

Propane is an important feedstock for polypropylene plastics (PP) widely used in applications such as pipes, automotive, electronics, consumer products cables and packaging. According to professor Scheller, this ambitious project aims to test the hypothesis that CO2 can be converted to propane in two steps: first, produce acetate using methanogenic microbes; and second, converting acetate to propane using enzymes from marine microbes that degrade propane. The project will also assess the techno-economic aspects of the process and compare it with the existing microbially assisted methane production technology.

While biotechnological procedures already exist to produce trace amounts of propane, they typically utilize sugars as the raw material, and the propane yields are low. This e-propane project is based on the idea of reversing the natural process of propane oxidation to CO2 that occurs at the bottom of the ocean by some microbes. The academic collaboration spans between several universities and also beyond Finnish borders. To experiment with the reverse process, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen will provide the strain of microbes that can oxidize propane. At Aalto University, Paula Jouhten, professor for microbial physiology will investigate how to increase the yield of propane production by the microbes, and professor Marika Kokko from Tampere University will study the increase of production rates through reactor design and process optimisation. Professor Pekka Oinas from Aalto will carry out the techno-economic feasibility study during the second year of the project.

Picture: Value chain of e-Propane (in the box) and connection to the 5 companies involved in this co-research project.

The project has strong interest from the industrial partners, especially from Borealis and Neste, who are keen on exploring the potential of renewable propane in replacing fossil-based raw materials in the production of sustainable chemicals and plastics. Ismo Savallampi from Borealis envisions: “Borealis aims to find new sustainable feedstocks for plastic production from recycled plastics, bio-based side- and waste streams and via synthetic route. Microbiology is a new and exciting research area for us, and we are eager to learn if microbes can be harnessed for utilizing captured CO2 and for the production of valuable platform chemicals.”

“Q Power is very happy to be involved in the project. Q Power has strong expertise in microbial e-methane production using its unique solid state fermentation technology. We are also interested in expanding our product portfolio. It will be really interesting to learn about the biotechnological possibilities of producing new sustainable products,” says R&D Director Anni Alitalo from Q Power.

Professor Scheller concludes: “I am very excited about this project and hope to see tangible results in making a positive difference in the future production of plastics. Our long-term goal is to have microbes that can produce propane from CO2 with a 95% yield. This is not expected within the first two years of the project, which focuses on building the proof-of-concept, but a destination to which we hope this project will eventually take us.” 

Project partners: Aalto University, Borealis, Fortum, Neste, Q Power, Solar Foods, Tampere University.


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