Liquid Light Turns Carbon Dioxide into Chemicals
The world is addicted to crude oil. Every day we consume around 90 million barrels or 3.8 billion gallons of crude oil, 84% of which is used for energy production. The other 16% is used as a raw material to create a multitude of other chemical products such as pharmaceuticals, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics. But the need for crude oil as a feedstock may begin diminishing over time as disruptive technologies begin to mature. Companies are developing alternatives to using crude to manufacture chemicals, companies such as Genomatica, which has delivered synthetic organisms that represent the industry’s first commercial biobased process for producing a high-volume intermediate chemical without the need for crude. This process called GENO BDO produced 5 million pounds of Butanediol (BDO) in 2012 (about 100 truckloads sold and shipped) and has now been licensed by the world’s #1 producer of BDO, BASF. Another company looking to create an intermediate chemical using environmentally friendly feedstock instead of crude oil is Liquid Light.
Founded in 2009, New Jersey-based Liquid Light has taken in $23.5 million in funding so far from the likes of VantagePoint Capital Partners, BP Ventures, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, and Osage University Partners. Liquid Light first unveiled their electrochemical production method for making chemicals in March of this year which is based on technology licensed from Princeton University. The event was highlighted in an MIT Technology Review article titled “A Cheaper Route to Making Chemicals from CO2” which contained the following statement:
Liquid Light’s electrochemical production method for chemicals would be an appealing substitute for current petroleum-based methods, particularly for chemicals with oxygen in them, says Gary Dirks, a former BP executive and a scientific advisor to Liquid Light. “You get products that are not easy to get from oil-based hydrocarbons in a much simpler process and at lower cost,” he says.
The production method is “lower cost” because it uses waste carbon dioxide as a feedstock instead of more expensive current feedstocks used such as natural gas, crude oil, or corn.
What’s Ethylene Glycol?
Ethylene glycol is an organic compound used in the manufacture of polyester fibers and in the fabrics industry. In the past, it has been obtained from traditional feedstocks such as crude oil or natural gas. According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, the global market for ethylene glycol in terms of revenue was estimated to be worth $23 billion in 2010 and is expected to reach $37 billion by 2016, growing at a reasonable CAGR of 7.7% from 2011 to 2016. Polyester fibers are the largest application for ethylene glycol, accounting for 56.4% of the overall market in 2010.
Liquid Light has developed an electrochemical process to use waste carbon dioxide (CO2) as a starting ingredient for the production of chemicals such as ethylene glycol. The below diagram shows how the process works:
Liquid Light estimates that producing one ton of ethylene glycol would require $125 worth of carbon dioxide, compared to more than $600 for traditional feedstocks such as oil. Backed by more than 100 patents and patent applications, Liquid Light claims that their technology can be applied to the production of more than 60 other chemicals, including propylene, isopropanol, methyl-methacrylate, and acetic acid. This recent presentation given by Liquid Light at the BIO World Congress describes the process in much greater detail.
Investors in renewable energy are usually looking at technologies that displace the main use of crude oil which is for the production of energy. Direct competitors of crude oil as an energy store include biofuels for vehicles or lithium batteries used to power automobiles such as those built by electric car company Tesla. Another way to reduce the demand for crude is displacing the lesser-known uses of crude, chemical production, which accounts for 16% of all crude used. Companies such as Liquid Light show great promise in providing renewable energy investors with a process to create over 60 chemicals which seems to be green through and through and most importantly, much cheaper than any other current processes. There are 100 million tons of high-purity CO2 generated in the United States alone each year that could be transformed into chemicals using the Liquid Light process. With the market for ethylene glycol alone sitting at $27 billion, there’s a big potential market to capture for this small startup.
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