LanzaTech has created the ultimate recycler. Its proprietary microbes are a happy gang of unfussy eaters that can convert just about any off gas into valuable fuels and chemicals for a second round of use. Jenny Baker reports.
Auckland biotech company LanzaTech has won several awards for its off gas fermentation technology and entered into agreements related to the technology with five international companies over the past eight months.
The company uses proprietary microbes to convert toxic greenhouse off gases from several industries into chemicals and fuel. The company’s latest successes are the culmination of six years of focused research that started in a laboratory in Parnell in 2005.
In March LanzaTech’s technology won it the NZBIO 2011 Company of the Year Award, with LanzaTech co-founder and chief scientist Dr Sean Simpson being named the 2011 Young Biotechnologist of the Year. In February LanzaTech was awarded a Red Herring Global 100 place, which recognises it as one of the 100 most innovative new technology companies in the world.
In October last year, Simpson and LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren were placed 38th in the Biofuels Digest’s global “Top 100 People in Bioenergy”. In the same month, the company made the prestigious Global Cleantech Top 100, a list that highlights commercially exciting clean technology.
LanzaTech now has agreements in place to make chemicals and fuel from off gas with two Chinese, one Indian, one Korean, and one Taiwanese company, all major players in their respective industries. It is also working with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a national laboratory of the United States Department of Energy Office of Science.
Simpson says when he and Dr Richard Forster established LanzaTech in 2005 their goal was simple. “We wanted to develop and commercialise proprietary technologies for the production of low-carbon fuels that do not compromise food or land resources.”
Six years of funding and R&D later, LanzaTech has accomplished this goal, in the process turning the traditional definition of waste on its head by making previously troublesome off gases go a second round as feedstock for fuel and chemical production.
The company has a multi-national board of directors and management team and offices in New Zealand, China, and the US, where it employs a 60 strong multi-disciplinary team of biologists, process, mechanical, electrical, and software engineers, as well as fermentation, gas handling, and pressure vessel design experts.
“By allowing the use of these readily available resources, our process provides a strategically important route to eliminating the controversial food versus fuel issue associated with traditional biofuel, notably ethanol, production,” says Simpson. “To be able to produce fuels and chemicals from non-food feedstocks and at the same time mitigate reliance on petrochemicals and fossil fuels has huge ramifications for industries around the world that are seeking to reduce their greenhouse gases and find ways to make their processes more economic.
“People have been looking for ways to minimise and mitigate, in particular, carbon dioxide emissions – possibly by sequestering them underground. Our process means those emissions can be captured and fermented into chemicals that can be used instead of petro-chemicals to fuel growth,” he says.
So how does the technology work? Where does the technology come? And where is it taking the LanzaTech team and the energy future of Mother Earth?
Eat your heart out
LanzaTech’s team of trail blazing lateral thinkers may be the driving force behind the company’s rapidly expanding patent portfolio, but the hardest workers in the company are its specially selected bacteria. These robust little fellows are feedstock agnostic and completely tolerant of the extreme levels of contaminants in off gases.
Their grazing grounds encompass any carbon on the menu, including flue gas from steel mills and other processing plants; syngas generated from any biomass resource such as municipal waste; organic industrial waste such as tyres and waste wood; coal derived syngas; and reformed methane such as biogas.
The carbon recycling process takes place in a bioreactor filled with a liquid medium that contains the microbes. Off gas from the industrial process enters the bioreactor at the bottom and is dispersed into the liquid medium, moving upwards in the reactor vessel. The gases are the microbes’ sole source of carbon and energy. During this process, the microbes consume the carbon, making a fermentation broth.
This broth then flows to the product recovery section. Here an advanced hybrid separation system recovers the desired products from the fermentation broth. LanzaTech microbes are highly shear-tolerant, so a variety of pumps and separation systems are compatible with the fermentation system. Finally, the products and co-products are collected and the water recovered and returned to the reactor system.
Simpson, who holds a PhD from York University in the UK, has always been interested in the carbon cycle and minimising its footprint in modern society. In 2005 he set out to do the impossible: finding a process to turn carbon waste into clean fuels and chemicals. After months of careful investigation, he and a colleague found a journal paper at the University of Waikato that pointed to a microbe that appeared a likely candidate for the job.
The microbe had been on ice in Germany in a collection for many years, and Simpson bought it for about $1000. In Auckland, Simpson put it under harness and into work, and after many dead ends, false starts and diversions, created the world’s keenest recycler since the mushroom: a bacteria that not only flourishes under conditions that kill most other living organisms, but also produces the perfect 21st century fuel in the process.
Simpson says the first phase of proving the technology was making clean fuel ethanol from off gases containing carbon monoxide. Part of the process was manipulating the microbes to get them to be flexible to the off gases’ hydrogen content. The result? The microbe can use hydrogen free gases for the production of ethanol, as they can produce hydrogen from carbon and water as required.
“Applying our genetic toolkit to the LanzaTech microbe, LanzaTech became the first company to develop a genetic modification system for a gas fermentation microbe,” Simpson explains.
The next stop was the Glenbrook steel mill near Auckland. Here, in 2008, the team put up two 500-litre gas fermentation pilot reactors linked directly to the mill’s off-gas exhaust. The fully automated pilot plant successfully demonstrated the operation of the LanzaTech process at scale with real-world gas resources.
Glenbrook remains a useful proving ground for LanzaTech’s new technology, which has made rapid advances since 2008. Now, other modified microbes in the stable can produce key chemicals for the production of plastics, polymers, and drop in fuels, amongst others jet fuel, from both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
Where to now?
A big challenge was proving the technology can be scaled up from Glenbrook. Thankfully take up of the process by an energy-hungry international community willing to experiment has been enthusiastic. In September 2010, Lanzatech signed an agreement with Henan Coal and Chemicals (HNCC), the second biggest coal producer in China, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) for the production of fuels and chemicals using the Lanzatech process and synthesis gas derived from the gasification of coal.
CAS will establish a Bio Energy Research Centre for the development, pilot production and commercialisation of coal derived synthesis gas to ethanol fuels and chemicals technology. The centre will focus on developing complimentary process technologies, like product separation, water conservation, and process integration, and developing other high value added technology and products.
In November 2010, LanzaTech entered into an agreement with PNNL to convert some of LanzaTech’s products to drop in jet fuel. LanzaTech’s process can produce 2,3Butanediol (2,3BD), an oxygenate that can be used to make plastics, polymers, and hydrocarbon fuels. Hydrocarbon fuels are true drop in fuels that can replace diesel, jet fuel and gasoline, and high value chemicals.
Says Simpson: “We’re the first to demonstrate that this platform chemical can be manufactured through fermentation from gases. Drop in fuel compatible with existing engines, pipelines, and refineries worldwide is a key enabler in the biofuel industry, and we believe we are en route to solving the puzzle.”
In January this year, IndianOil, India’s flagship petroleum company, and LanzaTech signed a memorandum of understanding in terms of which IndianOil will evaluate LanzaTech’s proprietary gas fermentation technology in one of its oil refineries to produce fuel grade ethanol. In February, LanzaTech and Baosteel Group Corporation, China’s largest steel and iron conglomerate and the world’s second largest steel producer, signed a joint venture agreement for the construction of a 100,000 gallon a year demonstration plant to produce fuel ethanol from steel mill off-gases. The plant will be completed later this year with a full scale commercial facility planned for 2012.
In addition, LanzaTech and Baosteel have signed an agreement with CAS which will see the Bio Energy Research Centre working to ensure the continued growth and evolution of this novel technology.
“When our commercial plants, each potentially capable of producing 50 million gallons of ethanol a year, are built throughout China we believe our technology will make a sustainable contribution to meeting China’s renewable energy demands. These industrial giants are at the forefront of transformational change that will impact the way the world will integrate the industrial and energy sectors,” says Simpson.
Also in February, LanzaTech signed a memorandum of understanding with steel producer POSCO, covering the implementation of LanzaTech’s gas fermentation technology to convert the Korean conglomerate’s steel-making flue gases to ethanol and other value added products.
In early April, LanzaTech and Taiwanese LCY Chemical Corporation, one of the world’s leading chemical companies, signed a heads of agreement to work together to identify key bio-based chemicals to produce these for global fuels and chemicals markets. This work will allow LanzaTech to fast track the commercialization of its chemical production process in a market with a potential global revenue for bio-based chemicals and plastics of US$15 billion by 2020.
“LanzaTech’s journey since we started in 2005 has been both demanding and exciting,” says Simpson. “In the past 18 months our progress has accelerated and we are elated to see our strategies coming to fruition.”
Jenny Baker is an Auckland-based freelance writer.