With the global average levelized cost of renewable electricity in 2016 at 4.6 cents/kWh, a future powered by renewables is increasingly likely, enabling us to reserve our precious carbon budget for the production of products such as aviation fuel and chemicals. Efficient use of carbon is driven by carbon recycling technologies, like LanzaTech’s, that can provide economic routes to carbon capture and utilization locking carbon into new products.
While traditional fermentation uses sugars and yeast to make alcohol, LanzaTech uses anaerobic bacteria (originally found in rabbit droppings) to ferment waste emissions from industry to make fuels and chemicals. The chemicals are used to make polymers, rubber and synthetic fibres, effectively recycling the carbon into new products preventing carbon pollution. LanzaTech’s first commercial gas fermentation facility is coming online in China in early 2018. This plant will initially produce fuel ethanol.
“Imagine wearing yoga pants made from recycled carbon!” said LanzaTech CEO, Jennifer Holmgren. “We want people to have a choice of where their carbon comes from. Fresh fossil or recycled, “carbon smart”, products. Much like the idea of buying organic, fair trade or recycled products, we see a future where you can walk into a store and make a conscious decision to buy everything from a chair to running shoes made from recycled carbon. This future is now possible through advancements in synthetic biology which enable the production of targeted molecules.”
Anaerobic bacteria must be handled in a highly specialized “air free” laboratory which makes the design, build and optimization of chemical production pathways especially challenging. To accelerate development while at the same time reduce costs and increase throughput of so-called “biomanufacturing”, LanzaTech is partnering with Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab); Joint Genome Institute (JGI: a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Berkeley Lab);Sandia National Laboratories (SNL); the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI, a DOE Bioenergy Research Centre) and Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) to develop new foundational technologies that will open new frontiers in this space.
Under a Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF) grant by the DOE, LanzaTech, with Berkeley Lab, SNL and JBEI are focusing on microfluidics, as a path to shrink the physical footprint of the facility using fewer cells and reducing the cost and time needed to test the outcome of each experiment. A second recent grant from the DOE will take this further and will see LanzaTech working with Northwestern University and ORNL to establish a new centre: the Clostridia Foundry for Biosystems Design (cBioFAB) pioneering the use of non-living (cell-free) approaches for rapid prototyping and computer-aided design of novel pathways, enabling the work to shift from a large scale laboratory to a mini air free lab, the size of an office desk and access virtually any molecule, even those not produced in nature!
To support this work, LanzaTech is also working with the JGI that will synthesize 1 million base pairs of DNA for novel pathways and to construct a library for modification of every gene in LanzaTech’s organism.
The advances LanzaTech and its partners have already made in optimizing the bacteria, has enabled the production of a wide array of chemicals including isopropanol (used to make solvents, resins and personal care products) to be demonstrated and scaled. The isopropanol market alone is worth around USD$2.5B/year.
“We think of our bacteria as the software and the fermenter at the industrial site as the hardware,” said Holmgren. “Today, LanzaTech provides the bacteria to make ethanol but, in the future, if you want to make something else, you can upgrade or switch out the bacteria. It’s like upgrading software. You can choose what you want to produce depending on the market without having to invest in a new production facility or plan years ahead. This is a carbon smart future, one we are excited to create in partnership with National Labs, Universities and the US Department of Energy.”