US company turns air pollution into fuel, bottles and clothes

Lead scientist Adam Thompson works in a LanzaTech lab that has developed a system that converts greenhouse gases into ethanol.

In LanzaTech’s lab in a suburb of Chicago, a beige liquid simmers in dozens of glass vats.

The concoction contains billions of hungry bacteria specialized in feeding on polluted air – the first step in a recycling system that converts greenhouse gases into usable products.

Thanks to licensing agreements, LanzaTech’s novel microorganisms are already being used commercially by three Chinese factories to convert waste emissions into ethanol.

This ethanol is then used as a chemical building block for consumer products like plastic bottles, sportswear and even clothes via ties to big brands like Zara and L’Oreal.

“I would not have thought that 14 years later we would have a cocktail dress on the market that consists of steel exhaust gases,” says microbiologist Michael Kopke, who came to LanzaTech a year after it was founded.

LanzaTech is the only American company among 15 finalists for the Earthshot Prize, an award for environmental contributions created by Britain’s Prince William and television broadcaster David Attenborough. Five winners will be announced on Friday.

To date, LanzaTech says it has kept 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere while producing 50 million gallons (190 million liters) of ethanol.

That’s a small drop in the bucket when it comes to the actual amounts needed to combat climate change, Kopke concedes.

But after spending 15 years developing the methodology and proving its feasibility at scale, the company is now looking to scale up its ambition and multiply the number of participating factories.

“We really want to get to a point where we just use above-ground carbon and keep that in circulation,” says Kopke — avoiding producing new oil and gas.

A plastic bottle made from reclaimed gases on display at LanzaTech's facilities outside of Chicago

A plastic bottle made from reclaimed gases on display at LanzaTech’s facilities outside of Chicago.

industry partnerships

LanzaTech, which employs about 200 people, likens its carbon recycling technology to a brewery — but instead of using sugar and yeast to make beer, it uses carbon pollution and bacteria to make ethanol.

The bacteria used in this process were identified in rabbit faeces decades ago.

The company placed it under industrial conditions to optimize it there, “almost like an athlete that we trained,” Kopke said.

Bacteria are shipped in the form of a freeze-dried powder to corporate customers in China, who have giant versions of the vats in Chicago, several feet tall.

The corporate customers who built these plants will then reap the rewards of ethanol sales — as well as positive PR from offsetting the pollution of their core business.

The customers in China are a steel plant and two ferroalloy plants. Six more sites are under construction, including one in Belgium for an ArcelorMittal plant and one in India with the Indian Oil Company.

Because the bacteria can absorb CO2Carbon monoxide and hydrogen, the process is extremely flexible, explains Zara Summers, Vice President for Science at LanzaTech.

“We can take garbage, we can take biomass, we can take gas from an industrial plant,” said Summers, who worked for ExxonMobil for 10 years.

“We can take garbage, we can take biomass, we can take gas from an industrial plant,” said LanzaTech’s Zara Summers, who previously worked for ExxonMobil.

Among the products already on the shelves is a clothing line at Zara. They sell for around $90 and are made of polyester, 20 percent of which comes from captured gas.

“I think the vision for the future is that there’s no more waste because carbon can be reused,” Summers said.

Sustainable aviation fuel

LanzaTech has also set up a separate company, LanzaJet, to use the ethanol to make ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ or SAF.

Increasing global SAF production is a major challenge for the fuel-intensive aviation sector trying to go green.

LanzaJet is targeting one billion gallons per year of SAF production in the United States by 2030.

Unlike bioethanol, which is made from wheat, beets or corn, fuel made from greenhouse gas emissions does not require agricultural land.

For LanzaTech, the next challenge is to commercialize bacteria that produce chemicals other than ethanol.

In particular, they have their sights set on the direct production of ethylene, “one of the most commonly used chemicals in the world,” according to Kopke — thereby saving energy associated with converting ethanol into ethylene.

© 2022 AFP

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