When most people think of recycling, they picture a blue bin filled with paper or plastics ready to be taken to a depot. But for SynBioBlox, an Edmonton start-up, recycling is a complex process whereby organisms transform greenhouse gases into jet fuel, paper or even nutrients to feed people.
“People talk about the fact we are heading towards 10 billion people on Earth. That is overwhelming Mother Nature,” says SynBioBlox CEO John McDougall. “It is not that Mother Nature does not have all the systems — but the impact of this many people with all their consumption is too much to happen naturally.”
People produce 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year and just throw it away. Why not use that, he says, and create not only a more sustainable end product but one that is far less costly.
Basically, explains McDougall, the team designs and builds organisms that can transform greenhouse gases into molecules that can be used directly or as precursors that can become products.
“The ideal would be we turn exhaust from a smokestack into fuel for the [factory] that is producing it. We want to accelerate the natural cycle,” says McDougall.
The team spent a week in McDougall’s living room, just thinking about how to tackle the problem. Initially, they were thinking about using nanotechnology.
“We quickly realized that from a scientific point of view we really weren’t there. But Mother Nature was, and that’s what took us to biology,” says McDougall.
So they gathered together data from multiple sources and put together a database in 2019, and now they have a blueprint for their first project—creating organisms that can transform greenhouses gases into molecules to be used in jet fuel.