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Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and SeeNews. 

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Carbon-Eating Bacteria May Hold The Key To Decarbonization

  • A U.S.-based biotech firm has found a way to turn carbon emissions into ethanol and other chemicals using bacteria.
  • LanzaTech, which has been operating at a commercial scale since 2018, not only captures the carbon gases at industrial sites but it also transforms them.
  • A key advantage of a carbon-eating bacteria turning carbon gases into ethanol is that it doesn't compete with food sources such as corn or sugar beet for ethanol production.

A U.S.-based biotechnology firm is using carbon-eating bacteria to turn emissions from steel mills, refineries, and other heavily polluting industrial processes into ethanol and chemicals, helping reduce carbon emissions and make recycled, sustainable products.   

LanzaTech, which has been operating at a commercial scale since 2018, not only captures the carbon gases at industrial sites but it also transforms them – using bacteria in bioreactors – into fuels and chemicals. These recycled products are directly replacing virgin fossil carbon in consumer goods and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), the company says.   

Carbon Recycled to Clothing and Aviation Fuel

LanzaTech gives the captured carbon a new life as SAF, textile fibers, packaging, or household cleaners.  

"LanzaTech's carbon recycling technology is like retrofitting a brewery onto an emission source like a steel mill or a landfill site, but instead of using sugars and yeast to make beer, pollution is converted by bacteria to fuels and chemicals," the biotechnology firm says.

"You can find carbon dioxide from almost every steel mill and refinery. You can even make it from trash," LanzaTech's chief executive officer Jennifer Holmgren told The Wall Street Journal.  

The company has partnered with major airlines and steel producers, as well as fast fashion firms, to help produce SAF and clothing while capturing carbon emissions from hard-to-decarbonize industries, including refining and steelmaking. Related: Plasma Physicists Use Magnetic Imperfections to Enhance Fusion Reaction

Last year, steelmaking giant ArcelorMittal and LanzaTech launched production at ArcelorMittal's commercial flagship carbon capture and utilization facility in Ghent, Belgium. The $214-million (200 million euros) 'Steelanol' facility is a first of its kind for the European steel industry, deploying technology developed by LanzaTech. The facility, which saw the first industrial production of ethanol in November, captures carbon-rich waste gases from steelmaking and biologically converts them into advanced ethanol through LanzaTech's bio-based process. Unlike traditional fermentation, the process ferments gases instead of sugars and uses a biocatalyst – a bacteria known since the 1990s – instead of yeast.

A key advantage of a carbon-eating bacteria turning carbon gases into ethanol is that it doesn't compete with food sources such as corn or sugar beet for ethanol production. Moreover, the initial feedstock can be anything with a high concentration of carbon dioxide and other carbon-rich gases, making the technology suitable for capturing the carbon at refineries and steel mills.

Last year, H&M launched a sportswear line partly from captured emissions via the LanzaTech bioconversion of carbon into the same building blocks that conventional polyester is made of.

This year, LanzaTech and its partner Technip Energies were selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to begin award negotiations for up to $200 million to a project aiming to produce sustainable ethylene from captured carbon dioxide.

But the highest-impact business of LanzaTech is expected to be LanzaJet, a spinoff in which LanzaTech holds 25%, with British Airways owner International Airlines Group (IAG) and Suncor Energy other large shareholders. LanzaJet was founded in 2020 to develop SAF via the commercialization of the exclusive and patented Alcohol-to-Jet (ATJ) technology.

Earlier this year, LanzaTech announced a $30 million investment by Southwest Airlines as part of an agreement to work toward the development of an SAF production facility.  

Just prior to the Southwest deal, LanzaJet opened LanzaJet Freedom Pines Fuels in Soperton, Georgia—the world's first ethanol to SAF production facility. The plant has committed t offtake agreements for all fuel produced in the next 10 years.

SAF can reduce CO2 emissions in aviation by up to 80%, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says

Supply of SAF, however, is still limited, even if governments support research and production. 

Volumes of SAF from waste are limited, while renewable synthetic kerosene "is relatively far" from commercialization, with cost driven by the sources of CO2 and green hydrogen. But synthetic SAF is also highly scalable and has a far superior carbon balance than biofuels, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said in a report tracking progress in the aviation sector.

The airline industry would be ready to embrace the fact that SAF will always be more expensive than oil-based jet fuel, Willie Walsh, Director General at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said last year.

LanzaTech is still struggling financially despite already operating several commercial sites to capture carbon emissions and turn them into useful products. It missed its revenue guidance for 2023 and saw net loss widen last year, while its stock on the NASDAQ has plunged by 50% so far this year, as investors have shown a lukewarm appetite toward clean energy technologies amid high interest rates that make planned projects more expensive.   


High Interest Rates Hurting Low-Carbon Tech

Renewable energy projects and emerging low-carbon technologies are more exposed to the current high interest rate environment globally, which could slow the pace of transition to clean energy, Wood Mackenzie warned in a report last month.

Global monetary policies are set to remain much higher in the coming decades than the near-zero interest rate period in the two decades from 2009 and 2022, WoodMac added.  

"This increased cost of capital has profound implications for the energy and natural resource industries, particularly the cost and pace of the transition to low-carbon technologies," said Peter Martin, Wood Mackenzie's Head of Economics and lead author of the report.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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