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Summary:

Codexis, a Redwood City, Calif.-based startup that counts oil giants Shell and Chevron among its backers, is in the business of so-called evolved biocatalysts: It takes a natural microbe or enzyme and tweaks the DNA sequences to create new variants, then searches for the variants best suited to […]

Codexis, a Redwood City, Calif.-based startup that counts oil giants Shell and Chevron among its backers, is in the business of so-called evolved biocatalysts: It takes a natural microbe or enzyme and tweaks the DNA sequences to create new variants, then searches for the variants best suited to development of new, potentially cheaper drugs (Pfizer used Codexis enzymes to produce Lipitor) and non-ethanol biofuels. This summer, the 7-year-old startup said it was looking for ways to apply this expertise to the emerging market for carbon capture technologies. Now Codexis has found a partner in that effort.

Canadian carbon capture company CO2 Solution said late Tuesday afternoon that it’s scored a $2 million investment from Codexis, and that the two companies will work together — under an exclusive joint development agreement — on what’s called enzymatic carbon capture technology. According to the release, Codexis now owns a more than 16 percent stake in the Quebec-based firm.

Under the agreement, Codexis and CO2 Solution plan to work for the next year or so on “economic validation” of enzymatic carbon capture technology. The basic idea is to use enzymes — proteins that accelerate the rate of a biochemical reaction — to “scrub” carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants or other industrial facilities. CO2 Solution brings to the table a system for introducing an enzyme to flue gas, having developed a bioreactor with the enzyme carbonic anhydrase at its core that absorbs carbon dioxide and turns it into a bicarbonate ion (see graphic at left). Codexis, meanwhile, will be using its tech to toughen up the natural enzyme in CO2 Solution’s method, improving its performance in the harsh conditions of an industrial flue.

Back in August, Codexis CEO Alan Shaw revealed in an interview with Reuters that it was actively looking to partner with an industrial equipment maker to help it market an enzyme for carbon capture applications. “Coal is not going anywhere fast,” he said. “There’s an urgent need to take carbon dioxide out of coal-fired power stations.” In 2010, Shaw said at the time, Codexis will move aggressively into the carbon capture market. However, he added, “They have to put a price on carbon for it to truly work.”

Four months later, world leaders at the Copenhagen climate talks are still negotiating how to set that price. Creating more uncertainty for the carbon capture market, climate negotiators on Tuesday proposed delaying until 2010 a decision about whether companies in industrialized countries should be able to buy their way out of emission reduction requirements by investing in carbon capture projects in developing nations. But Codexis has reason to act fast — it could help the company jostle toward the front of the line for government funding. Codexis and CO2 Solution said in their release that they will “cooperate on funding opportunities” from the U.S. and Canadian governments, both of which plan to dole out big awards for carbon capture projects in coming years.

Carbon capture remains unproven in large-scale projects and hugely expensive, but it’s deemed essential by the International Energy Agency and many governments as a tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum event in London this fall, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said carbon capture technology needs to be ready for “widespread, affordable deployment” within 8-10 years, and International Energy Agency chief Nobuo Tanaka said no fewer than 100 large-scale carbon capture and storage projects need to be built within that time frame, at a cost of some $56 billion. Over the next three decades, said Tanaka, carbon capture projects should receive investment of more than $700 billion. Earlier this month, the Department of Energy awarded $979 million in stimulus funds for three commercial-scale carbon capture and sequestration projects.

Chu believes that “some really new, high-risk ideas” could help reduce the cost of carbon capture tech, he said in a Q&A with Google CEO Eric Schmidt in October. Codexis and CO2 Solution’s system could potentially be one of them — with big energy companies holding a stake in Codexis, the company certainly has some of the right connections to get a foot in the door. “We don’t know what’s really going to take hold,” Chu said. “But we do know that several dozen things need to happen.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user jonasclemens

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