Development of Electro-Microbial Carbon Capture and Conversion Systems

  • Israa Al Rowaihi

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Carbon dioxide is a viable resource, if used as a raw material for bioprocessing. It is abundant and can be collected as a byproduct from industrial processes. Globally, photosynthetic organisms utilize around 6’000 TW (terawatt) of solar energy to fix ca. 800 Gt (gigaton) of CO2 in the planets largest carbon-capture process. Photosynthesis combines light harvesting, charge separation, catalytic water splitting, generation of reduction equivalents (NADH), energy (ATP) production and CO2 fixation into one highly interconnected and regulated process. While this simplicity makes photosynthetic production of commodity interesting, yet photosynthesis suffers from low energy efficiency, which translates in an extensive footprint for solar biofuels production conditions that store < 2% of solar energy. Electron transfer processes form the core of photosynthesis. At moderate light intensity, the electron transport chains reach maximum transfer rates and only work when photons are at appropriate wavelengths, rendering the process susceptible to oxidative damage, which leads to photo-inhibition and loss of efficiency. Based on our fundamental analysis of the specialized tasks in photosynthesis, we aimed to optimize the efficiency of these processes separately, then combine them in an artificial photosynthesis (AP) process that surpasses the low efficiency of natural photosynthesis. Therefore, by combining photovoltaic light harvesting with electrolytic water splitting or CO2 reduction in combination with microbiological conversion of electrochemical products to higher valuable compounds, we developed an electro-microbial carbon capture and conversion setups that capture CO2 into the targeted bioplastic; polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB). Based on the type of the electrochemical products, and the microorganism that either (i) convert products formed by electrochemical reduction of CO2, e.g. formate (using inorganic cathodes), or (ii) use electrochemically produced H2 to reduce CO2 into higher compounds (autotrophy), three AP setups were designed: one-pot, two-pot, and three-pot setups. We evaluated the kinetic (microbial uptake and conversion, electrochemical reduction) and thermodynamics (efficiencies) of the separate processes, and the overall process efficiency of AP compared to photosynthesis. We address the influence of several parameters on efficiencies and time-space yields, e.g. salinity, pH, electrodes, media, partial pressures of H2 and CO2. These data provide a valuable basis to establish a highly efficient and continuous AP process in the future.
Date of AwardMay 2017
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorJorg Eppinger (Supervisor)


  • Artificial Photosynthesis
  • Electrolysis
  • Carbon capture Electro-microbial
  • Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHB)
  • Bioprocessing

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