“At the regulatory level, US and EU are focused primarily on biofuels and neither has created significant incentives for bio-based chemicals that play an equally important role in the bioeconomy. The US has made tremendous investments in biofuel technology development, in pilot and demonstration biofuel facilities, and in feedstock production, logistics and infrastructure. The EU appears to be investing more in the development of Bioproducts than the US at the moment.” To say it, in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista, is Jennifer Holmgren, Chief Executive Officer of Lanzatech, the company, set up in 2005 in New Zealand and based now also in the US, which is revolutionizing the way the world thinks about waste carbon by treating it as an opportunity instead of a liability. LanzaTech’s novel gas-to-liquid technology has opened up vast new sources for making low-carbon chemicals and fuels that displace petroleum without the environmental concerns associated with crop- and land-based bioproducts. This flexible technology has the potential to disrupt the current highly centralized petroleum-based energy system by enabling regional production of low-cost, energy from local wastes and residues.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
What is the bioeconomy from your point of view?
The bioeconomy offers great opportunities and solutions to a growing number of societal, environmental and economic challenges. New sustainable technologies are already today changing how we look at energy and food production, chemical manufacture and resource efficiency. The bioeconomy presents a strong alternative to a fossil based economy, but we must exercise caution when considering “bio” solutions and ensure they adhere to clear sustainability outcomes. The bioeconomy ‘done right’ is key for development at a global level and for future generations.
What is exactly the business of LanzaTech?
LanzaTech is commercializing a revolutionary technology, which challenges how the world thinks about waste carbon: treating it as an opportunity instead of a liability.
LanzaTech’s gas-to-liquid platform uses proprietary microbes to ferment carbon rich waste gases, such as those from industrial flue stacks, producing liquid fuels and chemicals as they grow. This process can be likened to brewing-instead of sugars and yeast, we use waste gases and microbes. Instead of beer-we produce ethanol and chemicals.
LanzaTech is enabling a resource revolution by opening up vast new resources for making low-carbon chemicals and fuels that displace petroleum without the environmental and social concerns associated with crop- and land-based bioproducts. By recycling a variety of carbon-rich waste gases and residues LanzaTech has the potential to disrupt the current highly centralized petroleum-based energy system by enabling regional production of low-cost, energy from local wastes and residues. This technology has the potential to be increasingly disruptive as its product suite is broadened to a growing portfolio of commodity chemicals and hydrocarbon fuels, including jet fuel. The technology can even produce omega-3 fatty acids from CO2 rich waste gas streams, enhancing the sustainability of aquaculture and serving the nutritional supplement markets. LanzaTech is unique in its focus on re-using the carbon from waste streams, in the breadth of resources it can utilize and the array of low-carbon products that it can make. This gas-to-liquid platform could disrupt the energy landscape as we know it today.
Simply put LanzaTech makes fuels, chemicals and food from waste carbon emissions and our partners make money while doing good for the environment.
Why the use of biological resources is so important for the chemical industry?
Here I would like to distinguish between biological resources and biological conversion processes.
Biological resources are paramount for the chemical industry because there is an imperative to reduce CO2 emissions, and biology has evolved the only economical process for atmospheric CO2 capture. Trees are quite amazing in this regard, they use time and varying resources (sunlight, water, nutrients) and survive through centuries, fires, droughts, and withstand insects and fungus. The challenge then is that how to solve the challenges related to CO2 without creating larger problems related to land, water and biodiversity from the indiscriminate use of biological resources. The whaling industry of the 1800’s or rapid deforestation of the northeastern U.S. in the 1700’s and 1800’s are just a few examples. We must be efficient in our use of resources, and ideally not release the CO2 into the atmosphere in the first place – this mirrors LT’s approach in partnering with industry.
The design and control of biological conversion processes offer different and distinct advantages for the chemical industry. Biology is capable of catalysis with high specificity and for the production of highly oxygenated products – we should expect to be able to produce and procure molecules that we’ve never had access to before. Then we can ask the question, not what molecules are available, but what is the best molecule or combination for a particular application. Secondly, biological conversion processes operate at a narrow range of temperatures and pressures. This means one process could be swapped out for another, using the exact same hardware, when the markets and prices change. A simple example of this is that a facility that produces ethanol, could exchange the catalyst to one that produces isopropanol, and use the same conversion and separation equipment. Decisions around an asset no longer need to project the 20-year price of a particular molecule. When fully realized, and when combined with the revolution in information, this will serve to stabilize commodity markets and improve their efficiency.
What are your next goals?
In 2012 LanzaTech’s first 100,000gallon/annum facility with partner Baosteel in Shanghai demonstrated the technology’s capability at scale. A second facility with Shougang Steel near Beijing is operational today. Our primary goal for 2015-2016 will be the successful commercial operation of our process using steel mill off gases to make fuels.
From your point of view, what are the main differences between US and Europe with regard to policies to support the bioeconomy?
In broader terms, EU policies must be implemented at the Member State level, creating a patchwork of local rules/obligations with variable timing. US Federal policy applies everywhere, although states can impose additional constraints (like California). When we look at energy legislation, at the EU level, policy has been relatively stable but less specific than in the US. US biofuel mandates spell out concrete obligations, however these can be revised annually based on projected or actual biofuel availability, creating uncertainty. There are some noticeable similarities; neither has adopted technology neutral policies although the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) in the EU and the LCFS in California are steps in that direction. At the regulatory level, both are focused primarily on biofuels and neither has created significant incentives for bio-based chemicals that play an equally important role in the bioeconomy. The US has made tremendous investments in biofuel technology development, in pilot and demonstration biofuel facilities, and in feedstock production, logistics and infrastructure. The EU appears to be investing more in the development of Bioproducts than the US at the moment. In the EU, complementary policies such as the waste directive may have the potential to provide additional drivers for the bioeconomy.
I note with chagrin that two facilities Dr. Holmgren cites are both in China. It’s nice to have the highly paid R&D and executive jobs here in the US, That I applaud. But, the large number of jobs will be where technology is deployed – China in this case. And not just direct jobs; there is a multiplier effect as the new facility requires everything from staples and toilet paper to feedstock, buildings, roads and parking lots. We have millions of unemployed and millions more of underemployed right here in the US. When we get tired of cheering for commercial success in China, maybe we should ask politicians some really hard questions about why our governments – local, state, federal – are so risk-averse in helping US startup firms bridge the financial “valley of death” between R&D success and commercial deployment. Solyndra and several other high-profile failures have poisoned the environment for government guaranteed loans, and no official wants to be tagged as the one who approved a bad loan, Despite the failures, citizens have benefitted mightily from firms given a hand up by guaranteed loan programs. and citizens are paying a stiff price for the current attitude. Risk has always been with us. The most important genius of this country has been ability to see past the timid naysayer to see the promise of progress through collective investment in the future for all of us, rather that falling into the risk-averse trap of protecting a profitable past for a fortunate few.