A specialist in converting carbon emissions from industrial processes into high-value products via a continuous microbial fermentation process, Illinois-based LanzaTech started out as a fuel company, but is also seeking to make waves in new areas from packaging to food. AgFunderNews (AFN) caught up with chief sustainability officer Freya Burton (FB).
AFN: In a nutshell, what does LanzaTech do?
FB: Essentially, we ferment gases instead of sugars, primarily to make ethanol that can be used as a building block to make lots of other things. So in the case of our recent partnership with Plastipak, the ethanol is converted into ethylene, ethylene oxide, and then monoethylene glycol [MEG] which is used to make PET… so that’s how we get from pollution to packaging.
What we do is quite complicated, but the simple way I think about it is that we don’t need to extract carbon anymore; there’s no need to take carbon out of the ground, because there’s enough above ground carbon to make everything we need.
AFN: Where are your facilities and what emissions fuel your fermentation process?
FB: We have three commercial plants producing ethanol in China and three coming online this year in India, Belgium, and China. In all the plants except for the one in India, they’re primarily using carbon monoxide generated from steel production. In the India plant, we’re using carbon-dioxide-rich gases but there’s also some hydrogen [in the emission stream], which we need for our process. And that’s the big issue for other technologies that are just focused on C02: where is the hydrogen going to come from?
Transporting gases is not easy, so we integrate our facilities [with the source of emissions] so we don’t have to have lots of gas lines connecting to another site. It also means we can tap into the existing infrastructure you get at an industrial site in terms of utilities, water and so on.
Our demonstration-scale plant in Japan uses [emissions from] municipal waste [as feedstock] and we also have similar plants planned in the Middle East and Italy.
AFN: Is LanzaTech looking at gas fermentation for animal feed?
FB: Yes. So ethanol is our main product, but when the bacteria [that converts the carbon emissions into ethanol] reach the end of their useful life, we can filter them off and freeze dry them to get a protein dense biomass. This biomass has gone through a lot of the food trials where our commercial sites are in China for use in animal feed. We’re going the regulatory process now, but we’ll probably be selling this by the end of the year, so there really isn’t any waste in our process.
AFN: Is there potential to use your gas fermentation process for human food applications?
FB: Absolutely, the opportunities for the food market are enormous, especially when you look at the ability to take waste gases as a carbon source. So right now, we’re focused on the conversion of these types of gases into proteins, but we’ve also done work on producing omega-3 fatty acids from acetate.
So for example we have a project with an Indian oil company which is looking at producing omega-3 fatty acids from algae that is fed on acetate rather than sugars.
AFN: Tell us about your partnership with Plastipak to make lower carbon PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)?
FB: So PET comprises up to 30% monoethylene glycol [MEG] and 70% terephthalic acid [PTA], both of which come from fossil fuels. We can replace the MEG component, although our ultimate goal is to replace the PTA component as well.
We make the MEG in two ways. One is to use our standard process to make ethanol, then convert it ethylene, ethylene oxide, and then MEG, which is what we’re doing in our partnership with PlastiPak. The other more direct method—which we’re developing as part of a consortium with Danone— goes straight to MEG, without making ethanol.
So to date, we’ve proved we can do the direct MEG production at lab scale [using a genetically engineered strain of bacteria], so that is very early stage. There’s no organism in nature that can produce MEG, so the fact we can produce this directly is a really big deal.
We have also demonstrated two other chemicals— isopropyl alcohol and acetone—at demonstration scale, and we’re going to be putting those into commercial applications later this year.
AFN: What market interest is there in PET made with MEG from your ‘pollution to packaging’ process? Why is this better than recycled PET?
FB: Firms in the food and pharma sector are really interested in this because they can’t actually use mechanically recycled PET for certain products. Our technology means they can still reduce their overall carbon footprint in food and pharmaceutical grade packaging and sensitive applications such as hot-fill, refillables, and applications where a low crystallinity is required.
AFN: How do you talk to end consumers about PET that has one component [MEG] that’s not made from petrochemicals?
FB: Every customer wants to talk about it differently. But our goal would be to communicate that this PET bottle is made from recycled carbon, for example. So some of the customers who’ve been using it [the new Plastipak bottles] in Switzerland and Germany have described it as ‘made from captured carbon.’
What’s also been interesting is that a number of customers have just integrated it into their existing range. They haven’t created a whole new eco range, they just put it into their existing range using a mass balance system.
AFN: Are there other potential applications for your lower-carbon MEG beyond packaging?
FB: Yes, we’ve had a lot of interest from the textile space.
AFN: Wouldn’t it be better to move away from single use PET altogether rather than making it in a slightly less environmentally destructive way?
FB: We 100% agree, we need to get rid of single use plastic, and this is not the solution, this is a solution to replace the plastic we use in certain applications. But we do actually have the technology now to do a type of chemical recycling we’re testing in Japan where we take mixed waste that includes plastics and instead of incinerating it, we superheat it into a gas that then gets fermented by our bacteria.
AFN: LanzaTech was founded in 2005, how long can you carry on losing money?
FB: We went public this year via a SPAC deal, but we are still very much in scale up mode and going public helped bring additional visibility and cash so we could continue on our trajectory. We’re not making more money than we spending at the moment, but we have that path to get there [to profitability].