Activity Report

November 19, 2012 Synthesizing useful chemicals from carbon dioxide with algae

It is said that homo sapiens first appeared on the face of the earth around 50,000 years ago with origins in Africa, and achieved an agricultural revolution 9,000 years ago and an urban revolution 5,000 years ago. In the history of man as a species, it is relatively recently, just 150 years ago, when the industrial revolution occurred that set off an explosive growth in population, economic activities, and energy consumption. Man’s progress has made him the dominant creature on this planet, as is evident from the way we live today, but while achieving so much in terms of science, culture, and civilization, human activities have had significant detrimental impact on the rest of the earth. It is now crucial for us to step back and face the other side of progress and prosperity, and address climate change, depletion of natural resources, and other problems from a large-scale and long-term perspective that takes into consideration the planet as a whole.

Crude oil, which is one of the most valuable natural resources, is a fossil fuel with origins in the photosynthetic bacterium called cyanobacteria from prehistoric times. Long before the appearance of human kind, the earth’s temperature and concentration of carbon dioxide were much higher than today, an ideal environment for cyanobacteria to thrive and multiply. The bodies of dead cyanobacteria accumulated over the course of 500 million years and formed oil wells, becoming the fossil resource that has played a vital role in the activities of modern day human beings. Fossil resources take hundreds of millions of years to form, but humans have been consuming it with incredible speed. It is now estimated that oil reserves have dwindled down to an amount that will last less than 100 more years if the current rate of consumption continues. In order for human civilization to exist and prosper not just 100 years from now but beyond that time, we must search for an alternative source of energy that is renewable and sustainable.

In the ongoing search to find alternative resource, the power of science has begun to make it possible for us to utilize the functions and capabilities of living organisms for this purpose. One ultimate example is the production of useful chemical substances from CO2 using microscopic algae. When you hear algae, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of aquarium plants that provide oxygen to pet goldfish, the seaweed wrapped around sushi or the wakame in miso soup. But here, we are referring to a microscopic organism that is the same family as blue-green algae in ponds and the strain that cause red tides in the ocean when they over-proliferate. These organisms are equipped with the capability to produce a range of useful chemicals in the span of just a few days to weeks, conducting photosynthesis much more efficiently than other plants. Their capability to rapidly fix CO2 (i.e. ingest CO2 into cells, break it down, then metabolize it) means they can turn CO2 into a resource, a process which is difficult to do artificially. In other words, they hold the key to turning the abundantly existing CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere into a readily usable source of carbon for human beings.

Currently at TKI, we are studying methods to produce useful chemical substances without fossil fuels, by making use of the most sustainable source of energy, that is solar, and photosynthetic bacteria’s capability to fix CO2. As mentioned above, oil that has fueled the greater part of modern human activity has its origins in the carcasses of prehistoric cyanobacteria. There is a theory that in the Eocene epoch, CO2 concentration decreased along with the earth’s temperature due to the CO2 assimilation effects of cyanobacteria. It is an interesting twist of history that now in the 21st century we are working with organisms such as cyanobacteria to produce a substance that can replace oil.

In order to achieve our goal, we are partnering with researchers and scientists within Japan and internationally, and through our corporate activities, we aim to pursue sustainability for people, society and the planet as a whole. If we succeed in using photosynthetic organisms to directly produce useful substances from CO2, it means that the production time frame for resources would be dramatically shortened from 50 million years to just a few weeks, a process that we can truly call alchemy.

What obstacles remain for the realization of this method, and can we succeed within the 20-50 year time frame that TKI works with? Also, if we do realize this huge innovation, will it make a lasting effect on the history of human civilization? These are questions that remain to be answered in the times to come.

Utilization of CO2 by algae to produce useful substances

source: Tsukuba University, Wikipedia