A US company transforms air pollution into fuel, bottles, and dresses

Skokie, United States:  A beige liquid bubbles away in hundreds of glass vats at LanzaTech’s lab in the Chicago suburbs.

The composition includes billions of hungry bacteria adapted to feed on filthy air – the first stage in a recycling system that turns greenhouse gases into usable goods.

LanzaTech’s new microbes are already being used commercially by three Chinese enterprises, turning waste emissions into ethanol, thanks to license agreements.

Through collaborations with large companies like Zara and L’Oreal, this ethanol is employed as a chemical building block for consumer products such as plastic bottles, athletic apparel, and even gowns.

“I never imagined 14 years later, we’d have a cocktail dress made of steel emissions,” said microbiologist Michael Kopke, who joined LanzaTech a year after it was founded.

LanzaTech is the only American firm among 15 candidates for the Earth shot Prize, founded by Britain’s Prince William and broadcaster David Attenborough. On Friday, five winners will be announced.

LanzaTech claims to have removed 200,000 metric tons of CO2 from the environment while creating 50 million gallons (190 million liters) of ethanol.

Kopke admits this is a drop in the bucket regarding the actual numbers required to tackle climate change.

However, after spending 15 years establishing the system and demonstrating its large-scale practicality, the corporation is now looking to increase its ambition and increase the number of participating factories.

“We really want to get to a position where we only use above ground carbon and maintain it in circulation,” adds Kopke, referring to the avoidance of new oil and gas extraction.

Industry collaboration

LanzaTech, which employs roughly 200 people, compares its carbon recycling process to a brewery, except that instead of sugar and yeast, it utilizes carbon pollution and bacteria to produce ethanol.

The bacterium utilized in their method was discovered in rabbit droppings decades ago.

The business subjected it to industrial conditions to optimize it, “almost like an athlete that we trained,” according to Kopke.

Bacteria are sent as a freeze-dried powder to corporate clients in China, who have several-meter-high replicas of the vats in Chicago.

The corporate clients that developed these plants will reap the benefits of ethanol sales and excellent PR from offsetting emissions from their primary industries.

A steel factory and two ferroalloy factories are the clientele in China. Six other sites are being built, including one in Belgium for an ArcelorMittal facility and one in India with the Indian Oil Company.

Because the bacteria can consume CO2, CO, and hydrogen, the process is incredibly adaptable, according to Zara Summers, LanzaTech’s vice president of science.

“We can take rubbish, biomass, or exhaust gas from an industrial facility,” said Summers, who worked for ExxonMobil for 10 years.

Zara has a dress collection that is already on the shelf. They cost roughly $90 and are constructed of polyester, 20% of which is derived from collected gas.

“In the future, I believe there will be no such thing as garbage since carbon can be repurposed,” Summers remarked.

Renewable aviation fuel

LanzaTech has also established a second firm, LanzaJet, to manufacture “sustainable aviation fuel,” or SAF, from ethanol.

Increasing worldwide SAF production is a significant problem for the fuel-heavy aviation industry attempting to go green.

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

Unlike bioethanol derived from wheat, beets, or maize, fuels derived from greenhouse gas emissions do not necessitate agricultural land use.

The next hurdle for LanzaTech is commercializing microbes that create compounds other than ethanol.

They are particularly interested in immediately generating ethylene, “one of the most commonly used molecules in the world,” according to Kopke, saving energy involved with needing first to convert ethanol into ethylene.