Lanzatech scales up greenhouse gas-to-chemicals biotechnology

Will Beacham


HOUSTON (ICIS)–US biotechnology company Lanzatech – overall winner of this year’s ICIS Innovation Awards – is scaling up quickly to commercialise its microbial greenhouse gas-to-ethanol technology which has potential applications across the chemical industry.

The company – founded in 2005 – started up its first commercial plant in China in 2018 and is taking part ownership of some early sites until the technology is fully proven, but longer-term prefers to pursue a licensing model.

The group has commercialised a fermentation technology which converts carbon found in municipal waste plus industrial waste streams, such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide, into ethanol. The ethanol can then be further processed into chemicals and polymers plus jet fuel.

The company sees great potential for its technology to provide feedstocks for producing low carbon polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Acetone and isopropanol (IPA) is being scaled up and the company is pursuing pathways to producing monoethylene glycol (MEG). It also sees potential for higher alcohols, where it has a partnership with BASF.

According to CEO Jennifer Holmgren: “We are not intending to own plants, but we want to own or own a part of some of the plants over the next few years because we want to accelerate our work and implementation – that is key for us right now.”

Lanzatech is going through a period of rapid expansion using its licensing and joint venture model, with several projects due onstream in 2022 and beyond in both chemicals and jet fuel.

“We think of ethanol as a building block and a way to aggregate the carbon and the energy in these distributed waste resources and convert it to other products,” says Holmgren.

As well as chemical production, Lanzatech has a division called LanzaJet which is developing jet fuel based on its waste fossil fuel gases to ethanol technology. The group raised $45m from investors to construct a 10m gal/year commercial demonstration plant with start-up planned for the end of 2022.

If it is successful a larger plant is planned together with investors Shell, Suncor, Mitsui and IAG, owner of British Airways.

According to the CEO: “If we meet the key performance indicators at the commercial demo plant then we could go to the next stage. Our goal is to build 30m gal of capacity per year and we have plans to build over 100m gal/year of capacity.”

Lanzatech is also building commercial plants with Indian Oil, using refinery off gas that will be completed in 2022. Also under construction is a project with steel company ArcelorMittal at Ghent in Belgium, scheduled for 2022 start-up.

A number of municipal solid waste gasification projects are also planned or under construction, including one with Japan’s SEKISUI CHEMICAL.

With most of its projects still under construction, Lanzatech has yet to make a profit, but the group is backed up and owned mostly by venture capital funds.

It has raised $500m so far, with backing from energy and chemical producers such as Germany’s BASF, Indian Oil, Canada’s Suncor Energy, Japan’s Mitsui, Malaysia’s Petronas and China’s Sinopec. Financial investors include the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, Citic Capital, Khosla Ventures and New Zealand’s K1W1.

Holmgren plans to take Lanzatech public in the next two to three years, giving it access to new streams of funding from stock market investors.

Holmgren believes Lanzatech’s technology could be truly disruptive because it has the potential to transform any organic material as well as greenhouse gases into fuels and chemicals. The company has calculated that 7-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated if its process were introduced in all potential applications.

The CEO is clear that she would prefer the ethanol produced Lanzatech’s process to be further refined into chemicals rather than just sold or blended into gasoline.

“We’re definitely blending the ethanol into gasoline in China right now – most of it is used for that. But that is not our intention in the long term: I don’t really like to think of ourselves as an ethanol company, in part because it doesn’t speak to our ambition to make everything else.”

She adds: “From your shoes to your apparel, to your cleaning products can all come from recycled carbon. We don’t want to do this by ourselves, but to do it in partnership with the chemical industry using their existing assets and infrastructure.”

The process can be applied to unsorted municipal waste which is gasified, with the gas then fed to the microbes for conversion to ethanol.

The gasification process is around 90% efficient in converting waste carbon into a recycled, usable product such as ethanol, the company claims. This includes any organic content in municipal solid waste, which is gasified, and mixed plastic waste, which can be difficult to recycle.

“It’s actually kind of cool from a thermal catalyst perspective, which is my background. The difference is that biology can handle chaotic inputs, so if you believe in a world where waste is inhomogeneous, the ability of the microbe to interpolate chaotic inputs is actually very important.”

The technology would be well-suited to smaller recycling units attached to municipal waste facilities, according to Holmgren

Next year is a pivotal one for the company as more of the company’s technology is commercialised.

“Next year is going to be really important because so many different gas compositions are coming on stream. The ability to use the refinery gases and municipal solid waste – the breadth of feedstocks will become much more evident at commercial scale next year,” said the CEO.

Thumbnail shows ethanol. Image by Shutterstock


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