Some mundane household cleaners, just launched using technology from a Kiwi-founded company, are actually a big breakthrough on our journey to a low carbon, deeply sustainable future, writes Rod Oram

The story began in Auckland 15 years ago when Sean Simpson and Richard Foster were biologists at Genesis Research and Development, Jim Watson’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to build a major biotechnology company in New Zealand. They had a hunch about using bacteria to capture carbon emissions. 

They left to establish LanzaTech as a two-man start-up in a lab, down a long corridor in Industrial Research Ltd.’s Parnell facility in Auckland. Among notable basement neighbours renting space at the Crown Research Institute was Rocket Lab, Peter Beck’s then-fledgling satellite launching company.

There they began figuring out how to capture carbon monoxide from the smokestacks of the Glenbrook steel mill, bubbling it through water and feeding anaerobic bacteria on it to produce ethanol, a building block for other chemicals.

Simpson and Foster raised their first capital from Stephen Tindall, created a bespoke bacteria from bugs in rabbit droppings, and proved the technology at Glenbrook.

Then in 2014, LanzaTech moved to Chicago to tap into much deeper pools of technology, funding and customers. So far it has raised some US$350 million from a range of clean tech investors around the world, including the NZ Superannuation Fund. Tindall, still a shareholder, is more enthusiastic than ever about the company.

Migros’ new cleaners are the first commercial product to use LanzaTech’s technology, marking an important achievement in its short history to date. Until now, ethanol, the active ingredient in some such cleaners, has come from fermented biomass, such as sugar beet and corn. But the Migros’ ethanol is made by the LanzaTech process at the Jingtang steel mill in China’s Hebei province. Literally, the carbon monoxide from steel-making becomes a household cleaner rather than a greenhouse gas.

“We now have a process that can take an emission and turn it into something valuable,” Simpson said in an interview from Chicago on Friday. “We’ve developed a really comprehensive and completely unique ability to genetically engineer our bacteria.”

Using the same processing plants but changing the bacteria in them can produce isopropanol, propanol and other building blocks of chemical compounds to make fuels, plastics, synthetic rubber and many other products which otherwise would have used fossil fuel feedstocks.

Thus, rather than single use of fossil fuels turning into climate-changing emissions, the carbon in them is recycled and reused. “Taking carbon from the waste stream we can recombine the molecules into everyday chemicals, which is enabling a truly circular economic model,” Simpson says.

A crucial moment in this journey came in June 2018 when the Jingtang plant, the first commercial-scale one to use LanzaTech’s process, began production. Two more are under construction, one in Europe by ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel maker, and one in India by the Indian Oil Corporation.

To accelerate downstream applications of the technology in other materials, LanzaTech established last year, for example, Carbon2Value, a European venture with ArcelorMittal, Dow and Belgian research centres and state agencies.

Using the technology to make synthetic aviation fuel is another big focus for LanzaTech. In 2012 it bought a small biorefinery in the US state of Georgia to demonstrate it could scale-up a synthetic process developed by a US government laboratory and to further develop its own process.

In 2018, LanzaTech won certification for the blending of its synthetic ethanol into fossil jet fuel; and it also formed a UK joint venture with Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson’s airline, with some funding from the UK government.

This June it formed a new joint venture, LanzaJet. Its partners are Suncor, which produces crude oil from Canada’s tar sands, and Mitsui, the Japanese trading and investment company. The two are investing US$15 million and US$10 m respectively, plus a US$14 m grant from the US government. LanzaTech retains the majority shareholding.

LanzaJet will build a demonstration plant at its Georgia biorefinery. It will produce 40 million litres a year of synthetic jet fuel and synthetic diesel fuel, beginning in early 2022. All Nippon Airways has committed to using some of the output in its aircraft, and Suncor to selling some through its normal channels. Then the partners will build two follow-on plants at commercial scale.

“In New Zealand we had freedom to explore. We were able to simply say ‘what do we think would be the best thing to convert into a fuel that doesn’t emit so much carbon?’ ”

The push for emission-reducing synthetic jet fuels is gaining momentum. The European Commission is considering an EU-wide requirement for a minimum amount of such fuel on all flights. Meanwhile in January, Norway set a 0.5 percent requirement, which will rise to 30 percent by 2030. Among airlines, SAS, the Scandinavian-based carrier, has set itself a target of 10 percent by 2025 and 17 percent by 2030.

Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech’s chief executive since 2010 and a former chemical engineer in the oil industry, “is the godmother of sustainable jet fuel,” says Simpson, the company’s Chief Scientist. “She had a hand in producing almost all the fuels used in test flights by All Nippon, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic and other airlines. She joined LanzaTech with a vision for sustainable aviation.”

“LanzaTech could have never started in any other place except New Zealand,” Simpson told me in 2015 while I was researching my book Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene.

I was visiting him at LanzaTech’s headquarters and labs at the Illinois Science + Technology Park in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. It’s a research campus with history. There in the 1960s when it was the headquarters of G.D. Searle, the Chicago-based pharmaceutical company, Searle developed the first contraceptive pill and NutraSweet, the artificial sweetener.

“In New Zealand we had freedom to explore. We were able to simply say ‘what do we think would be the best thing to convert into a fuel that doesn’t emit so much carbon?’ ”

Scientists in Europe and the US were fixated on turning plants into ethanol because legislation and grants incentivised them to do so, and then blending the ethanol with petrol and diesel to reduce the fossil fuel emissions. But such processes remain energy inefficient and compete with food farming for land.

Instead, Simpson and Foster had a clean slate. As biologists they pursued their hunch about the power of bacteria to consumer carbon in a waste form and turn it into a useful form. Fifteen years later, that vision’s becoming a reality.

For example, “the head of a steel mill can think about using the plant’s emissions to produce a fuel or a chemical, and switch between them depending on the situation within the commodity markets,” Simpson said this week after the launch of Migros’ common household cleaners.

“We’re using biology to close the carbon cycle.”

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