Climate Tech

The “bug” that turns waste gases into useful chemicals

LanzaTech uses microbes to upcycle CO2 for use in clothing, perfume, jet fuel, and more.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Efforts are underway to scale carbon capture and carbon removal technology, but once we can catch gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, we have to figure out what to do with it.

One option is permanent storage solutions, such as sequestering CO2 underground. Another route is upcycling captured CO2 and using it to make products that rely on fossil fuels today. This process is known as carbon utilization, and people have lots of ideas for how to make it sexy: You can turn captured CO2 into diamonds, or vodka, or little black dresses.

LanzaTech is one of the companies working to recycle carbon. Since its founding in 2005, the Chicago-based company has worked with consumer brands to use captured carbon to make products ranging from perfume to laundry detergent. In April, it announced plans to work with Bridgestone on a process to recycle used tires. It’s working with Zara and Lululemon to produce materials for clothing. It’s also feeding CO2 to bacteria to create sustainable aviation fuel and other chemicals. LanzaTech announced in March that it would go public via a SPAC deal that values it at more than $2 billion.

There’s no question that there needs to be rapid decarbonization to meet climate goals. At the same time, there are some hard-to-abate sectors, like steel, cement, and chemicals, which account for the majority of the heavy industrial emissions that make up about 40% of total CO2 emissions, according to Brookings. To some extent, these sectors will continue to emit carbon, even as the energy transition progresses over the next few decades, Tom Dower, vice president of public policy at LanzaTech, told Emerging Tech Brew.

“We have so many industrial sources of carbon that are polluting today and will continue to pollute, whether we want them to or not, for the next 10, 20, 30 years. And some of these have really high concentrations of CO2. Like a cement plant, like a corn ethanol facility—basically straight CO2 to the atmosphere,” he said.

Eating carbon

Today LanzaTech is working primarily to convert waste gases emitted by industrial processes. LanzaTech typically licenses its technology so that companies can build its bioreactors alongside industrial facilities and feed the waste from the site to its microbes, which it refers to endearingly as its “bug.” Its partners include an ArcelorMittal steel plant in Belgium and an Indian Oil refinery in India.

The bug is a bacteria that can digest not just carbon dioxide but also carbon monoxide, which is currently being captured at some industrial facilities, such as steel plants, where it would otherwise likely be burned off, resulting in more CO2 emissions.

This gas fermentation turns carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen into useful chemicals like ethanol, acetone, and isopropanol through a carbon-negative process.

LanzaTech can use this same fermentation process with CO2 from CCUS or direct air-capture plants, Dower said.

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“So it’s just like regular fermentation that we all know about from beer and wine. Where they’re using yeast and sugar, we’re using bacteria and gas. And then they’re metabolizing it and it turns it into ethanol. And the ethanol looks exactly the same as ethanol from corn starch or anything else. But it’s coming from waste carbon resources,” Dower said.

This means LanzaTech can take the gases captured directly from industrial processes or from the atmosphere using DAC tech, feed them to this microbe, and turn them into materials that can go back into products that are typically made using oil or natural gas.

LanzaTech’s biggest challenge right now is meeting demand, Dower said.

While the company brought in nearly $19 million in revenue in 2020, it ended the year with about $40 million in net losses. LanzaTech expects revenues to increase to $65 million this year, reach profitability in 2023, and grow profits to more than $250 million by 2025, according to its SEC filings.

“We can’t build enough, fast enough. Demand is humongous,” he said. “These are consumer-facing brands, all these ones that we’re working with. Their consumers want them to give them a choice. And that’s what we say is give consumers a choice of where their carbon comes from.”

Aviation has been one focus for LanzaTech. In 2020, the company spun off LanzaJet, which makes sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Its alcohol-to-jet process creates fuel from ethanol made from fermented waste gases. While it produces less pollution and can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about 70% over its lifecycle compared to “conventional jet fuel,” the company claims, powering an aircraft with SAF still releases carbon dioxide back into the air.

“We can capture carbon, including from the atmosphere or from biomass that pulls it from the atmosphere, and convert it to something that otherwise will pull a barrel of oil out of the ground,” Dower said. “It’s okay to take carbon from the atmosphere and make a fuel that gets combusted and goes back to the atmosphere, as long as you bring it back around. As long as it’s circular.”

The company is also looking beyond the gases coming from smokestacks and exploring how it can convert other types of waste. LanzaTech is able to gasify solid waste, like plastics, non-recyclable trash, and discarded agricultural materials, turning them into syngas which can then be digested by the bacteria, Dower said.

Ultimately, creating truly carbon-neutral or carbon-negative products through LanzaTech’s fermentation process depends, like many climate technologies, on using renewable energy throughout its energy-intensive processes.

“Getting more renewables on the grid, or directly at sites, is really important. That’s what enables clean hydrogen, direct air capture, all these other things that we need to do,” Dower said.

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