Whether it be indoor or outdoor air quality, there certainly seems to be a growing number of biotech companies looking to tackle air quality issues, in the hope of helping to tackle climate change or helping to prevent further pandemics like COVID-19.
We’ve recently seen scary levels of air pollution in North America due to the wildfires in Canada, which set a record for carbon dioxide emissions during May and the first few days in June. Mostly started by lightning, the wildfires have been fuelled by climate change, as a one-degree celsius increase in temperature creates around 12% more lightning.
Climate change and air pollution are intrinsically linked, and one of the main causes of air pollution today is carbon dioxide emissions. Released when we burn fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, having too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the planet, causing global warming.
Biotechnology presents us with an opportunity to solve these problems, with more and more biotech companies focusing on capturing carbon dioxide emissions from our atmosphere and turning it into something else, whether that be food or jet fuel.
Meanwhile, many air quality biotech companies are also focused on improving indoor air quality, too, using technologies such as genetically engineered plants to create air purification systems that can capture pollutants from the air that might otherwise be difficult to get rid of using standard air purifiers.
In this article, we take a look at five air quality biotech companies looking to make a positive impact on the air we breathe every day.
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Deep Branch is very much focused on sustainability, and is aiming to tackle two major issues at once: the lack of sustainability in animal farming and carbon dioxide emissions. To achieve this, it makes use of clean and renewable carbon and energy sources to create ingredients for a more sustainable food system.
In order to recycle carbon, the company uses microbes, converting carbon dioxide from industrial emissions into high-value products, with its first product being a single cell protein developed for the animal feed industry, called Proton.
To create Proton, Deep Branch has a gas fermentation platform called (R)evolve. The vessel is filled with electrolyte solution, before non-GMO microbes are added, followed by carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen gasses, to set up culture. Then, after continuous cultivation to achieve a steady state, Proton is eventually created, which the company says will provide a continuous supply of a price-stable, price-competitive, and nutritionally optimal macro ingredient that offers a 90% saving on carbon footprints.
Claiming to have invented a technology that can transform pollution and ensure that humans will be able to continue to prosper far into the post-pollution future, air quality company LanzaTech is also focused on recycling carbon into useful, profitable and sustainable products, using bacteria to convert pollution into fuels and chemicals.
The company has three ethanol plants in China that use its technology to capture emissions before they hit the air, instead diverting the gasses into bioreactors, where they are fermented into ethanol using microorganisms. The ethanol is then turned into other materials, such as clothes and airplane fuel.
So far, the company has produced more than 40 million gallons of ethanol, meaning it has helped to offset 200,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, preventing it from entering the atmosphere.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, and it is thought that indoor air pollutant concentrations in homes, workplaces and school classrooms are around two to five times higher than outdoor air. This is largely down to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are compounds with high vapor pressure and low water solubility, emitted by a wide array of products, from cleaning supplies to office equipment.
French air quality startup Neoplants is attempting to tackle the problem of VOCs, which can’t be efficiently captured by traditional air purifiers, by designing genetically modified houseplants that can absorb these pollutants.
The company’s first plant, Neo P1, is able to capture the four main components that cause air pollution in people’s homes and turn VOCs into water, sugars, amino acids, and oxygen. To achieve this, the company sequenced the houseplant Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), before inserting biochemical pathways that break down the compounds into the genome of the plant.
Another air quality company focused on plant-based air purification is Origen Air, which also uses genetically modified houseplants to clean the air we breathe indoors, metabolizing airborne toxins, such as VOCs. The company specifically uses the houseplant Pothos, making use of a liver enzyme encoded into the plant’s genome that bonds pollutant molecules to air molecules, in turn de-toxifying the air molecule.
Origen Air’s product is called The Pinnacle, which can clear up to 8,000 cubic feet of air. To create this, the company has combined traditional air purification with its genetically modified plants to make a new type of air purification system.
The plants’ efficacy was proved in laboratories at the University of Washington, which showed that they removed 100% of chloroform from the air, as well as 82% of benzene. Plus, they can also remove formaldehyde and acrolein present in the air.
U-Earth, based in the biotech hub of Milan, is attempting to tackle the issue of particle size, as many pollutants and pathogens in the air we breathe are less than 0.5 microns in size. This means they are generally too small to respond to standard ventilation systems, and will stay suspended in the air indefinitely.
To tackle this, U-Earth has harnessed a biophysical principle to be able to attract all harmful particles, no matter how big or small. These include gasses, mold spores, superfine particulate matter, and VOCs.
Once the contaminants have been captured by the air purifier, the U-Ox – which consists of a selected population of safe bacteria from natural sources – within the system allows for natural bio-oxidation to occur, whereby the contaminants are digested and transformed into water, carbon dioxide, and, if present, base elements.
The air quality company also has an air quality monitoring system called U-Monitor, which can detect contamination behavior and environmental history. It can be used to draw baseline data before the air purification system is installed to maximize the efficiency of the system.