US company turns air pollution into fuel, bottles and clothes

Senior scientist Adam Thompson works in a lab run by LanzaTech, which is developing a system that converts greenhouse gases into ethanol.

In LanzaTech’s lab in suburban Chicago, a beige liquid is bubbling in dozens of glass barrels.

The mix contains billions of hungry bacteria specialized to feed on polluted air, the first step in a recycling system that turns greenhouse gases into usable products.

Thanks to licensing agreements, LanzaTech’s new microorganisms are already being put into commercial use by three Chinese factories that convert their waste emissions into ethanol.

This ethanol is then used as a chemical building block for consumer products such as plastic bottles, sportswear and even dresses, through connections with big brands like Zara and L’Oreal.

“I wouldn’t have thought that 14 years from now we would have a cocktail dress made of steel emissions on the market,” said microbiologist Michael Kopke, who joined LanzaTech a year after its founding.

LanzaTech is the only American company among the 15 finalists of the Earthshot Award, an award for contributions to environmentalism initiated by Britain’s Prince William and publisher David Attenborough. Five winners will be announced on Friday.

LanzaTech says it has produced 50 million gallons (190 million liters) of ethanol to date while keeping 200,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Kopke admits there’s a small drop in the bucket when it comes to the actual amounts needed to tackle climate change.

But the company, which spent 15 years developing the methodology and proving its feasibility on a large scale, is now looking to increase its ambition and increase the number of factories participating.

“We really want to get to a point where we just use above-ground carbon and keep it circulating,” Kopke says—in other words, avoid extracting 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 their treatment was identified decades ago in rabbit feces.

The company has placed it in industrial conditions to optimize “almost like an athlete we train” in these environments.

The bacteria are shipped in freeze-dried powder form to corporate customers in China, who own giant versions of barrels several feet high in Chicago.

Corporate customers who build these facilities will then reap the fruits of ethanol sales, as well as the positive PR of offsetting pollution from their core business.

Customers in China are one steel plant and two ferroalloy plants. Six other plants are under construction, one for an ArcelorMittal plant in Belgium and with Indian Oil Company in India.

Because bacteria can ingest CO.2carbon monoxide and hydrogen, the process is extremely flexible, explains Zara Summers, LanzaTech’s vice president of science.

“We can take the garbage, we can take the biomass, we can extract the gas from an industrial plant,” said Summers, who worked for ExxonMobil for a decade.

Zara Summers of LanzaTech,

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

Among the products already on the shelves is a range of dresses at Zara. Selling for about $90, they are made from polyester, 20 percent of which comes from captured gas.

“I think with the vision that in the future, there’s no such thing as waste, because carbon can be reused,” Summers said.

Sustainable aviation fuel

LanzaTech also formed a separate company called LanzaJet to use ethanol to create a “sustainable aviation fuel,” or SAF.

Increasing global production of SAF is a major challenge for the fuel-intensive aviation industry looking to green itself.

LanzaJet aims to produce one billion gallons of SAF per year in the United States by 2030.

Unlike bioethanol produced from wheat, beets or corn, fuel produced from greenhouse gas emissions does not require the use of farmland.

The next challenge for LanzaTech is to commercialize bacteria that will produce chemicals other than ethanol.

In particular, they are focused on directly producing ethylene, which according to Kopke is “one of the most widely used chemicals in the world”; thus saving energy associated with first converting ethanol to ethylene.

© 2022 AFP

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