sustainability moves

Oxy taps Houston startup's carbon negative biotechnology for new pilot plant

Cemvita Factory is working on a pilot plant with Oxy to scale its biotechnology. Photo via OxyLowCarbon.com

Occidental's venture arm — Oxy Low Carbon Ventures — has announced its plans to construct and operate a one metric ton per month bio-ethylene pilot plant featuring Houston-based Cemvita Factory's technology that biomimics photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks.

The new plant will scale the process, which was jointly developed between Cemvita and OLCV, and is expected sometime next year, according to a press release from Oxy.

"Today bio-ethylene is made from bio-ethanol, which is made from sugarcane, which in turn was created by photosynthesizing CO2. Our bio-synthetic process simply requires CO2, water and light to produce bio-ethylene, and that's why it saves a lot of cost and carbon emissions," says Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory, in the release. "This project is a great example of how Cemvita is applying industrial-strength synthetic biology to help our clients lower their carbon footprint while creating new revenue streams."

Oxy and Cemvita have been working together for a while, and in 2019, OLCV invested an undisclosed amount into the startup. The investment, according to the release, was made to jointly explore how these advances in synthetic biology can be used for sustainability efforts in the bio-manufacturing of OxyChem's products.

"This technology could provide an opportunity to offer a new, non-hydrocarbon-sourced ethylene product to the market, reducing carbon emissions, and in the future benefit our affiliate, OxyChem, which is a large producer and consumer of ethylene in its chlorovinyls business," says Robert Zeller, vice president of technology at OLCV, in a news release.

Moji Karimi founded the company with his sister and Cemvita CTO, Tara, in 2017. The idea was to biomimic photosynthesis to take CO2 and turn it into something else. The first iteration of the technology turned CO2 into sugar — the classic photosynthesis process. Karimi says the idea was to create this process for space, so that astronauts can turn the CO2 they breathe out into a calorie source.

"Nature provided the inspiration," noted Dr. Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. "We took a gene from a banana and genetically engineered it into our CO2-utilizing host microorganism. We are now significantly increasing its productivity with the goal to achieve commercial metrics that we have defined alongside OLCV."

A couple weeks ago, Moji Karimi joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss growth and challenges Cemvita Factory faced.

"We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization," he shares on the show. Stream the episode below.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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