A partnership between Nouryon and start-up firm Photanol to make chemicals from CO2 and sunlight has been recognized by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of its 59 global Technology Pioneers for 2019. Tech Pioneers are firms from around the world “that are shaping their industry and their region in new and exciting ways,” WEF says.

The breakthrough technology of the Photanol project is the use of specially grown bacteria that thrive on CO2 and sunlight. Veronique de Bruijn, CEO of Photanol explains: "The cyanobacteria are basically our mini-factories, they use CO2 as the raw material and turn this into organic acids, which can be used to make biodegradable plastics, personal care products and a host of other things."

Using CO2 and replacing fossil-based products can results in substantial reductions in carbon emissions, provided it can be applied at a large scale. Photanol contacted Nouryon in 2014 to help it achieved scale and reach commercial efficiency. The companies are now close to starting construction on their first major demo plant in Delfzijl, the Netherlands, due to start production in 2020.

Marco Waas, Director RD&I and Technology at Nouryon, said: "What struck me about Photanol at the time was the already high efficiency of the conversion from CO2 to the end-product, even when the company was still an early stage start-up. I realized that if we could optimize the cyanobacteria further and help Photanol scale up, the potential would be enormous."

A Photanol testing facility. The installation is relatively simple to scale up.

First customer feedback to the products from Photanol has been very positive, Waas notes, and the next step is to show the same quality can be reached at higher volumes.

De Bruijn added: "The major benefit of our technology is that the bacteria actually release the chemicals we need into the water. So in contrast to algae, for example, we don't need to extract the product from the organism itself. However, the challenge was to efficiently distill the product from water. This is where we really benefit from Nouryon's knowledge about process technology.”

"We demonstrated successful production of several kilos, the demo plant will produce up to 10 tons per year, but to reach commercial capacity we aim to eventually produce kilotons that the industry needs" says de Bruijn.

The installation itself is surprisingly simply to scale-up for a modern chemical plant. Each tube is a self-contained system, and expanding a plant is as simple as laying our more pipes with sufficient sunlight to let the bacteria do their job.

Moreover, the production process can already compete with most bio-based alternatives even at the current stage of development. "When we look at base chemicals made from fossil fuels or sugars, we are still more expensive, but for bio-degradable plastics and some more specialized applications, we are close to beating even fossil-based raw materials," de Bruijn said. "With sufficient support to cover technology deveopment, I am confident that we can eventually compete in the global market."

As part of the selection as Technology Pioneers, firms can participate in a two-year programme with the WEF, when they have the opportunity to collaborate with their emerging tech peers, engage with industry leaders and work with public and private experts around the world.