A carbon-proof circular economy? For Dr. Jennifer Holmgren this is not an impossible task. LanzaTech is working to create a large scale industrial Carbon Capture and Usage project (CCU). With two goals: increase profits and save the planet. Renewable Matter talks with Dr. Holmgren to understand LanzaTech’s carbon smart circular economy philosophy and discuss their projects for curtailing CO2 emission.


What is the concept behind carbon recycling? 

“The concept is to reuse all the carbon you can. LanzaTech takes waste carbon emissions from steel mills and refineries and reuses them to make other products. Carbon Recycling means always using carbon ‘one more time,’ ‘one more time,’ ‘one more time,’ for as many times as possible.”


Why is it important to create CCU projects? 

“The latest IPCC reiterated the importance of reducing our fossil dependence to basically zero by 2050. The only way we’re going to continue to have a vibrant carbon economy is if we don’t use fresh fossil carbon every time we want to do something. What we need to do is learn to recycle and create a secondary market for carbon and use that as many times as possible. In this way you don’t have to always start with a fresh carbon molecule.” 


What is the potential market for carbon recycling? 

“We believe we can produce 25 to 30 percent of today’s transportation fuel needs using recycled carbon emissions. We could be making hundreds of billions of gallons of fuel just from recycled carbon that is available today. Therefore, we think it’s not a niche market. At LanzaTech we see it as a huge opportunity. We are the first ones, but we hope we won’t be the only ones. I believe we have a carbon crisis and my goal is to inspire other companies who are doing carbon recycling to really focus on it and become very serious about it.”


What projects have you created so far? 

“We already have a commercial plant running in China, producing 16 million gallons of ethanol with around 45% carbon monoxide emissions. This is LanzaTech’s first commercial plant that recycles carbon into ethanol. We are also building a commercial plant in Europe at a steel mill owned by ArcelorMittal. In this case it will be a lower CO2 emissions content steel mill. Therefore, it will be a harder project. However, it will show the extensibility of that technology. Furthermore, LanzaTech has a project in India where we are building a commercial plant with the Indian Oil Corporation. We are also in the process of implementing a project in the U.S. where we are recycling the carbon in agricultural residues, such as almond waste. We are developing multiple projects which will all be based on the China plant model because they will employ the same technology extended to different situations.”


What is the process behind making CO2 into ethanol that can then be used as a biofuel?

“The way we do this is we have a bacterium that eats carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. And that is all it does. It doesn’t need sugar or anything else. It eats these three gases and converts them into ethanol. Therefore, what we have to do is optimise the bacteria, through evolution selection like you do with plants, without genetically modifying our bacteria. Then we developed a special bioreactor to make them work. If you compare LanzaTech bioreactor with classical sugar fermentation, where sugar is soluble in water and yeast can just swim around and capture it, in our case we had to develop a bioreactor able to solubilise these gases. Carbon monoxide is not soluble in water so we had to develop a unique bioreactor that could handle this. In summary: the technology is basically a bug swimming in water in a special bioreactor, eating carbon monoxide and converting it into ethanol.

We have been working on this since 2005 and have spent 250 million dollars in research. In particular, we had to focus on acetogenic bacteria such as Clostridia. It has been a lot of work over a lot of years, focused on one bacterium that we knew we could optimise for this purpose.” 


What other research is LanzaTech undertaking? 

“What we want to do is spread this technology to all sorts of industrial locations, all over the world, whether it be a steel plant or ferroalloys or anything else. 

The second priority regards the technology we have developed to adapt ethanol to jet fuel. We have already performed a demonstrative flight with Virgin Atlantic on October 2nd 2018. Therefore, we want to build a plan to commercialise ethanol jet fuel because we think making low carbon jet fuel, whether it is from our ethanol or other ethanol sources, will be a very important step towards decreasing CO2 emission in the aviation industry. 

The third area of focus is to design a genetic modification platform so that we are able to make chemicals directly. This would allow us to make other products like propanol or acetone, rather than just making and using ethanol; we also want to focus on other chemicals. However, to do this we have to genetically engineer the organisms. Therefore, we have spent a lot of resources investigating this process, because nobody has really modified a gas-eating organism before. People already know how to modify sugar-eating bugs. We have gone further: since around 2010 we have been working on learning how to modify bacteria that only eat gases.”


Besides biofuels, what other products can be derived from CCU? 

“We are also focused on materials. We are learning how to recycle carbon from waste emissions into chemicals so as to produce isopropyl alcohol and then convert the isopropyl alcohol into polypropylene so that plastics can be made from recycled carbon.

Hence, we imagine producing plastics, rubber for tyres, or nylon like the one used in yoga pants. We think we can make chemical precursors to a lot of these types of materials. Someday hopefully we will make traditional chemicals starting with gases, rather than sugar and rather than fossils. Imagine a steel mill: its by-product is carbon monoxide and you take that carbon monoxide and you use it to make 1,3-Butadiene, which gets converted into nylon or rubber. We can create so many products, not just plastics and packaging, but we will also recycle carbon into many other products. These are some of our biggest goals.”


Who is investing in LanzaTech? 

“We have investors from all over the world. Our first investor was K1W1 from New Zealand. Then we got investments from Khosla Ventures, Qiming Company and became strategic partners with Mitsui, Indian Oil Corporation, BASF, Suncor and others. We have Venture Capital and strategic investors.”


You promote the clever concept of a “Carbon Smart Circular Economy.” What exactly does this mean? 

“Today you can go into a store and buy Fair Trade coffee or Organic Certified products. I hope that some day we will be able to go into a store and buy a pair of yoga pants ‘made from recycled carbon’ or even branded as ‘Carbon Smart,’ and hence based on CCU instead of being made from a virgin fossil molecule. And the reason I call it carbon smart is because I want consumers to become carbon smart. I want consumers to ask the question ‘where does my carbon come from?’ If you start asking that question then you might be a carbon smart consumer and will walk into stores and buy products made from recycled carbon. That is what I call carbon smart.”


In the future will we be able to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and use it?

“In our atmosphere there is only 407 part per million (PPM) of CO2. This seems like a lot due to the impact that it has. However, the concentration is low and therefore pretty hard to extract. So, what we’re doing is focusing on concentrated sources. Our source plants have 40-50% hydrogen and CO2 concentrations. So it is much easier to capture. For this reason, we are not developing technology to remove carbon from the air. That is a completely different problem. And, to be honest, a much harder problem to solve.”


How can we make CCU popular? 

“We have to link carbon to pollution. The health impacts of high carbon concentrations in the air we breathe are becoming so documented that we really have to focus on how we dispose of carbon, how we use carbon, how we secure carbon. I think that is what will define our generation and it is not just because of greenhouse gases. That’s my message to the world. I really hope we get busy solving this and CCU is just one remedy in a sea of potential solutions that can help solve this problem.” 



LanzaTech, www.lanzatech.com