UMICS - Upcycling Methanol Into a universal Carbon Source

The Search for an Alternative Carbon Source
Thanks a lot to Wisam Zureik for recording and processing the video material!







Global Problems

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Hunger in the World [2]
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Climate change [3]


Someday, our children, and our children's children, will look us in the eye and they'll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them with a cleaner, safer, more stable world?

Barack Obama

Our world is facing serious global problems. Maybe the most difficult problems humanity ever had to face. According to an official european public survey, the two most pressing ones are poverty and climate change[1]

Bioeconomy - pillar of the future

Many scientists work hard on both problems, but only together, we are able to find a solution. Hereby, the bioeconomy is one key component of a sustainable and independent future.

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The biotech market is growing[2]

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) sees the bio-based products of the growing bioeconomy as a pillar for a sustainable future[3]. Therefore, the European union agreed to build up a sustainable bio-based economy to address several challenges, such as food security, natural resource scarcity, fossil resource dependence and climate change[4].

However, the transition towards a bioeconomy will rely on the advancement in technology of a range of processes, on the achievement of a breakthrough in terms of technical performances and cost effectiveness and will depend on the availability of sustainable biomass[5].

Bio-based products play an important part in the sustainable future, but are dependent on cheap and available biomass

Limited agricultural area

Advancement in technologies are dependend on us, the scientists, however the availability of sustainable biomass is limited by the arable area of our planet.

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Uprooting for new agricultural area

To fight poverty and worldhunger for a growing population, we are up rooting primal forests and plowing meadows every year. In the last 20 years, we deforested around 130 million ha, while getting only 47.5 million ha of agricultural area. This means that the agricultural land grew only around 0.9 %[6], which is partially caused by desertification and climate change.

At the same time we estimate a population growth of 0.77 % each year![7] The demand for calories per capita globaly have increased from 1990/1992 to 2015 by 8.9 % and might increase by ~ 7.3 % until 2050 [8]. To match the growing demand, we need more agricultural area and more effective plants.

However, burning down primal forest seems not only insufficient to solve the world hunger, but it also contributes to climate change and destroys the environment. If we keep up with the current development, climate change and a lowering ground water will destroy more arable land than we can spare.

If we hardly manage to feed the population, how can we guarantee the supply of biomass for other biotechnological products?

Fighting climate change

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94 mio. barrel equals nearly 86,000 tank cars

Today we use 94 million barrels of oil each day.[9]

Our living standard is mainly based on fossil resources. We get fuels, plastics and most products of our everyday live from it. However, we will run out of this fossil fuels and all the produced CO2 already changed our environment dramatically. Today we basically pump up our products from underground. When we want to get independent, we will have to find other ways to get all of these products. The main source for sustainable products today, are plants. However, they are really inefficent in fixing CO2. They need a lot of time, water and space.

To get independent from fossil fuels, we have to developed new processes. As shown before, we are limited in arable land. That means, we would have to convert a lot of arable land to grow food and even more to monoculture of energy crops to get enough biomass for the production of biofuels and other important products. This however is not an acceptable option.

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An undesired future szenario - Large surfaces are used for the cultivation of energy crops

Using biological waste can contribute to a suitable soluiton, but we have to be careful not to become deserted the arable land considering the amount of fertilizer we will have to use if we would harvest the whole plant and use it for biotechnological processes instead of just harvesting crops and returning the straw to the field.

We need to find a way to use CO2 from air to form new products without taking up huge areas of arable land

First solution

Technical CO2 fixation

Methanol production has a potential energy efficency of around 70 % (i.e. 70% of the electrical energy used contributes to the calorific value of the methanol produced)

sunfire GmbH

Recent technological achievments made it possible to convert CO2 into methanol with an incredible efficieny. The efficency of energy that is converted into chemical energy is about 80 times higher than the conversion of CO2 to biomass through plants and even 18 times higher than the maximal efficieny natural photosynthesis can reach[10]. Of course these processes depend on high concentrations of CO2. Therefore, companies already developed new systems to concentrate the CO2 from air[11] [12] [13]

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Converting CO2 and water to methanol and oxygen

Methanol based economy

We need hundreds of companies working on thousands of ideas, including crazy-sounding ones that don’t get enough funding, such as [...] solar chemical (using the energy of the sun to make hydrocarbons)

Bill Gates

The nobel price winner George Olah predicted in his book: "Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy", that a future sustainable economy will use methanol as a key component. Unfortunately, methanol has some difficulties. It is toxic, explosive and evaporates at room temperature, which makes transport, handling and storage quite challenging. Furthermore, many industrial products can't be synthesized from it and we will not be able to change all the existing biotechnological infrastructure to base on methanol. Therefore, we need to find a process to convert methanol into a complex carbon source, that can substitute for a currently important platform substance, starch.

Universal carbon source

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The glycogen molecule[14]

Substituting starch Plant starch is a storage molecule, consisting of α-1,4-linked glucose monomers and α-1,6-connected branches to form the predominant amylopectin. A smaller percentage of typical starch granules consists of the linear form, amylose. Likewise, bacterical glycogen is a uniform homopolymer of equally linked glucose molecules. The only difference are more frequent α-1,6-linked branching points every 8-12 units and the complete absence of linear molecules. Producing glycogen in E. coli can offer unique ways of influencing its composition and properties, thereby producing a starch equivalent for different applications.

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Starch industry in Europe

Diverse applications In order to uncouple the existing bioeconomy from valuable plant origin, our bioprocess creates an innovative starting point. Thus other bioprocesses could be built upon the independently produced glycogen. In this light, one can imagine an independent bioeconomy from scratch, which does not interfere with other industries such as the food sector anymore.

In fact, the conversion from methanol to glycogen upvalues a common industrial side product and provides the energetic potential of methanol to a broader field of industry. Today, starch from more than 480 million tonnes of cereals is used for industrial purposes[15]. Native and modified starches have got a diverse field of further uses. For instance the food, textile and chemical sector as well as the paper industry rely on this basic material. Special starches also play an increasing role in medicine, e.g. for drug delivery systems. [16]

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Full cycle for conversion of CO2 to biotechnological products

By upcycling methanol into glycogen, we provide a sustainable substrate for biotechnological processes and save millions of tonns of foodcrops that would have gone into industrial use. Therefore, we can save primal forests, make a difference in the global CO2 concentrations and liberate cereals to be used as food.


  2. Saurabh (Rob) Aggarwal, What's fueling the biotech engine—2012 to 2013, Nature Biotechnology 32, 32-39 (2014)
  3. OECD (2009), “The Bioeconomy of 2030”, in The Bioeconomy to 2030: Designing a Policy Agenda, OECD Publishing.
  5. Scarlat N., et al.,The role of biomass and bioenergy in a future bioeconomy: Policies and facts. Environmental Development(2015), http://dx.doi.org10.1016j.envdev.2015.03.006
  6. Faostat
  7. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division World Population to 2300 - published 2004
  8. ESA Working Paper No. 12-03, Table 2.1, page 23
  10. Die natürliche Photosynthese: Ihre Effizienz und die Konsequenzen - Hartmut Michel
  14. [1]
  15. FAO Food outlook - october 2014
  16. Emeje Martins Ochubiojo and Asha Rodrigues (2012). Starch: From Food to Medicine, Scientific, Health and Social Aspects of the Food Industry, Dr. Benjamin Valdez (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-307-916-5, InTech

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