Innovation Awards: Waste gases deliver value

17 October 2011 09:00  [Source: ICB]

Bluescope Mill 

 Pilot plant at BlueScope steel mill

Copyright: Karen Abplanalp

The award for Best Innovation by an SME was won by LanzaTech for its process to turn waste gases from steel production into usable fuels and chemicals

New Zealand biotechnology start-up LanzaTech has developed a gas fermentation process utilizing waste gas streams containing CO and CO2 to produce fuels and high value chemicals.

Its gas fermentation technology uses ­modified bacteria to convert the gas, rich in carbon monoxide and hydrogen, into products such as ethanol and 2,3-butanediol (BDO).

The process offers an efficient route to ­carbon capture and re-use by taking flue gases from steel mills and processing plants; syngas from sources including municipal solid waste, organic industrial waste and ­agricultural waste; coal-derived syngas; and steam-reformed methane.

LanzaTech was founded by Sean Simpson, a plant biologist, in Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand, in 2005. It has 80 employees. ­Simpson established the company after he identified a need to make biofuels from raw materials that are outside the food chain and do not affect water or land resources. In the laboratory, he developed an organism that could convert carbon monoxide into ethanol. The company now operates a pilot plant with a capacity of 15,000 gal/year (45 tonnes/year) of ethanol at the BlueScope steel mill in ­Glenbrook, south of Auckland.

The business is based on the steel industry. China is important as it produces 50% of the world's steel and it has provided the most ­significant opening for LanzaTech. It is working with BaoSteel, China's largest steel producer and the second largest in the world, to build a 100,000 gallons/year demonstration plant at a BaoSteel mill in Shanghai.

"Reaching 100,000 gal/year is a ­significant milestone in the timetable," LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren says, "If this is ­successful, we will build a commercially viable plant producing 50m gal/year."

Holmgren is no stranger to large projects, with more than 20 years of experience in the energy sector, including the development and commercialization of fuel and chemical technologies. She was formerly vice-president of renewable energy and chemicals at US-based Honeywell's technology subsidiary UOP.

"With global energy demand set to double over the next 40 years, the search for alternatives is imperative. Whoever thought that something as improbable as converting waste gas from steel production could make a significant difference? If we could put 20 facilities in 20 mills around the world, then we have 1bn gal/year, without affecting food stocks. This is very exciting," Holmgren says.

"LanzaTech has estimated that there are steel mills around the world producing enough CO and CO2 to convert to 30bn gal/year of ­ethanol. That's the potential."

However, the potential doesn't stop with the steel industry. LanzaTech has relationships in refining and the coal and chemical industries, where syngas and steam-reformed methane can be converted. LanzaTech says its technology performs reliably and consistently using syngas and industrial waste gases with minimal gas conditioning, significantly ­lowering capital and production costs.

Ethanol is produced in commercially viable volumes using the process, but the output can be controlled by modifying the organism to produce butanol, propanol, isoprene, succinic acid and other chemicals. The flexibility of the process allows the company to develop plants that produce end-products most ­relevant to the local market.

"The technology is very young. We have a lot of runway," Holmgren says. In September, the company secured up to $4m (€2.93m) funding from the US Department of Energy to develop a "drop-in" replacement for conventional jet fuel, which it can produce from alcohol or BDO through its technology partnerships. The focus to date has been centered on biofuels production, but LanzaTech says the chemical market ultimately provides it with an opportunity to leverage the flexibility of its technology and capitalize on higher-value products.

It believes its technology has the potential to broadly impact the fuels and chemicals market with the specific products it can ­manufacture having an annual market value of more than $100bn. To support its business around the world, the company has research and development and engineering functions in Auckland and business development and ­engineering functions in Chicago, Illinois, to service the US and Europe, and in Shanghai to support a demonstration plant in China.

While the future of the technology rests in part on the success of the BaoSteel plant, it has already caught the attention of several global corporations, which have signed agreements with LanzaTech. These include Japan's Mitsui, which is taking the technology and developing it with potential partners in new markets, India's Jindal Steel, which plans to build a commercial scale facility, and Indian Oil, which is also ­interested in building a commercial facility.

For more information on LanzaTech and its innovative waste gas technology, go to

By: Mark Whitfield
+44 20 8652 3214

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