Microbial magic: Making biofuel from emissions

biofuel

A biofuel company has devised a production method that uses gas-eating microbes. Credit: pfala via Compfight cc

Can bacteria turn a steel mill into a green-tech marvel that can also convert emissions into biofuel?

It may seem like a stretch, but it’s already happening in China, where biotech company LanzaTech has deployed two 100,000-gallon fermentation plants outside two mills, one in Shanghai and the other near Beijing.

How it works

Gases from the mills are piped into so-called bioreactors within the plants, where they’re mixed with a liquid containing gas-eating microbes. The liquid byproduct is then funneled into a system that separates out usable chemicals, such as ethanol fuel, and recycles excess water back into the mill for cooling.

Similar processes require elevated levels of hydrogen to work, which increases costs.

LanzaTech’s proprietary organisms, however, generate hydrogen naturally. The bacteria-based method has reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the plants in China by 60 to 80 percent, and emissions of tiny particles by 40 percent, said LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren.

Why China?

These figures suggest the possibility of a major shift for an industry that is notorious for its pollution record — but only if many more microbe tanks are built. The price isn’t cheap. Each plant costs about $80 million to build.

LanzaTech is focusing on China because the country is home to 50 percent of the world’s steel mills. China, in turn, has embraced the technology introduced by LanzaTech, Holmgren said.

“China is focused on clean tech — they are extremely focused on the fact that they won’t be able to grow otherwise. Our technology is a license for China to expand steel production,” she said.

LanzaTech is also pursuing opportunities in India, a country focused on increasing production and improving emissions — business conditions that Holmgren noted are lacking in the United States.

Biofuel for sale

A key aspect of LanzaTech’s business model is selling the byproduct of its microbial magic. To that end, it’s established a partnership with Virgin Atlantic to develop jet fuel.

Richard Branson, founder and chairman of Virgin Group, called it “one of the most exciting developments of our lifetime and a major breakthrough in the war on carbon.”

The airline was recognized earlier this year with a Sustainable Biofuels Award from the World Biofuels Market for embracing the low-carbon fuel, which will result in a 50 to 60 percent reduction in carbon emissions once it’s ready for use.

Holmgren said the biofuel works in aircraft, but it will take some time before it’s approved for commercial air travel.

LanzaTech also plans to make jet fuel from its biomass conversion facility in central Georgia. The company bought a former biorefinery called Range Fuels that had been producing fuel from agricultural waste — a method that has struggled to scale commercially. Where Range Fuels has tried, and ultimately failed, to make large quantities of ethanol, LanzaTech hopes to succeed with microbes — producing not only jet fuel, but chemicals like isoprene and isopropanol, which are used in diesel, olefins and plastics.

The production of biofuels from waste products would give the United States an opportunity to move away from water- and land-intensive corn-based ethanol.

“One of the key benefits is that we are outside the food chain,” Holmgren said.

Brita Belli is an award-winning journalist and author of the book, “The Autism Puzzle: Connecting the Dots Between Environmental Toxins and Rising Autism Rates.” Her articles have appeared on MSN.com and the websites of The New York Times and National Geographic.

Brita Belli
Brita Belli is an award-winning journalist and author of the book "The Autism Puzzle: Connecting the Dots Between Environmental Toxins and Rising Autism Rates." Her articles have appeared on MSN.com and the websites of The New York Times and National Geographic.
Brita Belli
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