The US company recycles plant gases into everyday products
In dozens of jars at LanzaTech’s lab in suburban Chicago, the beige liquid is constantly bubbling: billions of tiny bacteria are filling up with gas and taking it up for recycling.
Thanks to the technology developed here, three Chinese factories are already using these microorganisms to convert their greenhouse gas emissions into ethanol.
Later, thanks to collaborations with big brands such as Zara or L’Oréal, this ethanol is in turn transformed into everyday products: bottles, household products, sports shorts and even clothes.
“Obviously, I wouldn’t have thought 14 years ago that we’d be making cocktail dresses out of steel mill emissions,” laughs Michael Köpke, who joined LanzaTech almost in its infancy.
The company is the only American among 15 finalists for the Earthshot award, created by Prince William to reward initiatives for the benefit of the climate. Winners will be announced on Friday.
LanzaTech and its 200 employees claim to have avoided 200,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere since its launch and instead produced around 190 million liters of ethanol.
Microbiologist Michael Köpke says it’s a “drop of water” compared to the amounts needed to combat climate change.
But after spending 15 years developing the technique and proving its feasibility on a large scale, the goal today is to increase participating factories.
“We want to get to a point where, instead of producing more oil and gas, we’re just using the carbon from the ground to keep it in the cycle,” explains Mr. Köpke.
– “Sportsman” bacteria –
LanzaTech likens its technology to beer design: instead of fermenting sugar, the raw materials are greenhouse gases, and the end product is ethanol.
The commercial bacterium was identified decades ago in rabbit feces. The company has placed it in industrial conditions to optimize its performance, “a bit like training an athlete”, compares Michael Köpke.
These bacteria are then sent as a freeze-dried powder several meters high to the factories responsible for building the reactors, where they will be disposed of.
These corporate customers will then receive the rewards of ethanol sales.
The Chinese sites are a steel plant and two ferroalloy plants. Another six sites are under construction, one for the ArcelorMittal plant in Belgium and another in India with the Indian Oil Company.
Zara Summers, LanzaTech’s vice president of science, says the process is very “flexible” and “more so than any other gasification technology” because the bacteria can take in CO2, carbon monoxide or hydrogen.
The feedstock can be gasified “garbage”, “agricultural waste or any heavy industrial emissions”.
Various collaborations have already made it possible to use these gases to create household products sold on the shelves of the large Migros supermarket chain, or even two clothing collections for Zara.
Selling for around $90, they’re made from 20% polyester.
According to Ms Summers, humanity will “always need carbon”, but “the idea in the future is that it will no longer be lost. (…) Instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, let’s use it in products.”
– Sustainable fuel –
LanzaTech has also established a separate company, Lanzajet, to use the generated ethanol as an aviation fuel (“sustainable aviation fuel”, SAF). Increasing global sustainable fuel production is a major challenge for this sector, which is trying to “green” itself.
The company’s goal is to produce about 3.8 billion cubic meters of fuel per year by 2030.
Unlike bioethanol produced from wheat, beets or corn, bioethanol from gas does not replace plants.
The next challenge for LanzaTech is the commercialization of bacteria that produce products other than ethanol. Thousands of different strains are tested in his laboratories.
“We have already shown that we can produce more than 100 chemicals,” explains Michael Köpke.
He is particularly enthusiastic about the idea of being able to convert gases directly into ethylene, “the most widely used chemical product in the world” (for glass, packaging, etc.), which today produces “almost as much aviation” CO2.
Currently, LanzaTech’s ethanol needs to be converted to polyethylene, but this step can be skipped and save even more energy.