Honda’s new partner in the war against carbon dioxide is microscopic and green.
Two hours north of Tokyo via bullet train in Tochigi, Japan, Honda’s Research and Development center has several long, thin tanks of a green goo positioned on top of one of its buildings, being fed carbon dioxide (CO2) through a bubbling tube, absorbing sun and producing oxygen. It’s a test bed for a genetically engineered microalgae that is Honda’s newest ally in the battle against climate change.
Greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide, along with methane and nitrous oxide, are the bane of a controlled climate. Since the 1970s Earth’s CO2 output has increased by 20 percent, leading to a full degree of planet warmup. CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas and the one that Honda is focusing on heavily in its mission to clean up the auto industry, and the world.
Honda says the real setup of those algae tanks would be much larger, and positioned closer to the source of a carbon dioxide-producing process.
The Japanese automaker has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality in all its products and corporate activities by 2050. It will do this through several methods including traditional carbon capture, electrification and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and algae, promising the “right technology in the right place.”
It’s called Dreamo and it can permanently capture CO2 and convert it to food and dietary supplements, biofuel, or a bioplastic. The process is carbon negative with one gram of the self-replicating algae absorbing two grams of CO2.
Honda bought the parent strain of Dreamo, officially called UTEX-90 after being created in a University of Texas lab. Honda then developed it further to work in a wider range of temperatures using the least energy input. Honda’s version grows five times faster than the original strain and can multiply 32 times per day.
Theoretically, one cell of Dreamo could be more than 2 billion by the end of day one (if all of the space and nutrients and sunlight are available). After day two the number is nearly incalculable. About 20 billion cells of Dreamo weigh about 1 gram. A Honda Civic sedan emits 304 grams of CO2 per mile. If it lasts 100,000 miles, an easy feat for a Honda, it will have emitted about 30 million grams of CO2 in its lifetime. That’s nothing for a few week’s worth of Dreamo.
The little green men were bred not only to withstand temperature changes, but also contamination from the outside environment. Honda introduced different bacteria and insects to the cultures and picked the algae that performed the best. The flat panel bubbling tanks on top of the building in Tochigi are a few inches thick, allowing sunlight to penetrate the water. They can tilt in various latitudes to better absorb the sun’s rays. With heat-insulating water jackets Dreamo can thrive even in temperatures below freezing.
According to Honda, with the right setup and very little electricity, Dreamo can grow in harsh environments like deserts or salty land where ordinary plants can’t live. That means there is no competition with food production. Many biofuels use sugarcane or corn as raw materials.
By adjusting the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen in the culture medium in which the algae grows, Honda can push the Dreamo to make more protein, turning the dried-and-spun-in-a-centrifuge product into food, supplements and cosmetic products. If Honda adjusts it the other way the product is mostly carbohydrates, which can be made into glucose, then ethanol. That can be made into jet fuel or a plastic resin. The component ratio can go from 60 percent carbohydrates to 69 percent protein in three days.
The medium can also be recycled for more algae growth using less energy. Normal microalgae can only use the same culture medium two or three times, Dreamo can use the same mixture 12 times by adding only water and the nutrients previously absorbed by the algae.
According to Honda, Dreamo is easier to process than ordinary microalgae because ordinary algae has thick cell walls that need to be destroyed in order to extract starch inside. Dreamo has a very thin cell wall so that this process can be eliminated. Honda just adds an enzyme to extract starch inside the cell and convert it to glucose. Honda says between the cost and time efficiency the technology is suitable for mass production.
As for drawbacks, the supply of Dreamo isn’t unlimited and there is a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the green stuff to eat. It’s only fully efficient when the carbon is captured and pumped in, which Honda is also working on. Both parts need to be scaled. And though it works in moderate temperatures, there are places too cold or too hot to grow it.
“Verifying if there are any drawbacks or limitations of Dreamo in larger scale production is our next step. From 2022 fall, we will build a 1000-square meter culture field, and then in the latter half of 2023, we will build a culture field at one of our auto plants to grow Dreamo using CO2 released from the auto manufacturing process,” a Honda research and development spokesperson told Newsweek.
“By doing so, we will verify the algae plant cost and necessary input energy at a larger production scale. Production scale this year will be 10 times bigger than last year, and next year will be 100 times bigger than this year.”
It’s not the endgame for carbon dioxide, but it’s a start and one of the many tools Honda (along with almost every other automaker) is working on. The Dreamo technology is still in its infancy, but because it multiplies so quickly, it’ll be middle-aged and more effective sooner rather than later.
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