This Estonian scientist turns the biggest sins (CO2) of the climate crisis into sustainable raw materials

The country can make good use of these green technologies as it is still very much dependent on oil shale, a rock from which oil is produced.

Gas fermentation as a solution

“The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere is higher than ever and still growing. The transition to a low-carbon energy supply is underway, but especially heavy industry and transport will remain dependent on fossil carbon for some time to come. Fermentation is a way to replace fossil carbon with sustainable carbon, ”said Kaspar Valgepea, assistant professor at the University of Tartu.

He chairs the European Research Area (ERA) for gas fermentation technology and established the advanced GasFermTEC laboratory in Tartu in 2019. The laboratory is part of the Estonian Center for Biosustainability (BEC). With this green technology, the scientist wants to rid Estonia – and ultimately the rest of the world – of two of the most important problems of the climate crisis: the surplus of CO2 in the atmosphere and the ever-growing mountains of waste.

Traditional versus new generation of gas fermentation

Traditional fermentation, in which sugar is the raw material, has been carried out on a large scale for hundreds of years. The most well-known fermentation process is without a doubt the conversion of sugar from malt or grapes to alcohol into beer and wine.

Over the past twenty years, researchers and industry have been intensively researching microorganisms that can grow on CO2 as a carbon source, without requiring light for energy. The idea is simple: gas gas fermentation is a new generation, sustainable biotechnology that uses harmful gases, such as CO or CO2, used as a base instead of sugar. Carbon emissions are ‘born’ into microorganisms that convert the pollution into bio-products.

Sustainable recycling of CO2

Valgepea’s research does not focus on CO storage2, but on their sustainable recycling. His team follows two lines of research. “We want to better understand how the bacterial cells work. We then want to use this knowledge to change the genetic code of metabolism to reduce CO2 or convert CO into usable, new products. This speeds up the gas fermentation process and can be used more widely. “

So the Estonian scientist does not focus on CO2 or CO currents. Instead, the focus is on understanding the bacteria and finding common solutions that actually apply in practice. Various gas mixtures, environmental conditions and bacterial strains have been tested and developed in Tartu. “Our job is to simulate situations as realistically as possible and to identify what happens to the bacteria under certain conditions.”

Hardware and mathematical models

In the laboratory, hardware and mathematical models play an important role. “We can replicate and model the cell based on data. For example, we can see what happens to a cell if we add more gas to it. Or modify the genetic code of metabolism so that we can make the gas fermentation process more efficient. For example, by we within five seconds how the cell responds to this while we are in a real experiment that takes weeks. “

“We want to better understand how the bacterial cells work. We then want to use this knowledge to change the genetic code of metabolism to reduce CO2 or convert CO to usable new products. “

Kaspar Valgepea

Unique laboratory

The laboratory in Tartu is unique. Worldwide, there are only a handful of comparable facilities where industrial conditions can be simulated on a laboratory scale. Valgepea gained experience during his postdoc at the University of Queensland in Australia. For example, the research team he was part of developed a bacterial strain that converts waste gas into a biodegradable bioplastic together with the American biotech company LanzaTech.

Kaspar Valgepea

When the opportunity arose to start a laboratory in his home country, he did not hesitate for a moment. He has been in the business for three years now and operates a fully functioning facility. He still works closely with both LanzaTech and the Australian Laboratory. He also works with local businesses. “Ideas can be good in the laboratory, but they must also be usable on an industrial scale.”

Valgepea’s GasFermTEC laboratory is working with market leader LanzaTech to improve the existing commercialized gas fermentation process. For example, through process optimization and bacterial design.

Complicated research

There are so few research groups and companies working on the technology because the research is complicated. The fermentation of waste gas into useful products can only take place in the absence of oxygen. “You can not just buy the standard equipment and set up a laboratory. Any mistake you make with oxygen will cause your experiment to fail. That means everything takes a lot of time. ”

High expectations

Valgepea has high hopes for biotechnology in general. He hopes that the Estonian government will see this too. “When the government announced the allocation of 100 million euros to the Green Fund, Estonia’s three largest universities merged. Together, we have put forward ideas for how we believe that life science research can be brought to a higher level in our country. We hope the government will support our initiative. ”

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