Science is amazing. However, it works against us sometimes. Such is the case for ethylene, a petrochemical in products we use every day. The problem is that ethylene is traditionally created through a process that involves non-renewable materials and pollutive mechanisms. LanzaTech NZ, Inc. has arrived on the scene to possibly change all that, and the signs are promising.
To understand how exciting this new technology is, you have to first comprehend the process we’ve been using.
We have an increasing number of facilities, called ethylene plants or ethane crackers, that convert natural gas into ethane and then into ethylene. Ethylene, in turn, is processed into plastic products, chemicals, detergents, coatings and more. This process not only relies on fracking to remove natural gas from the Earth but endangers the environment through transport, methane release and a series of other carbon emissions.
“Ethylene production is one of the three largest carbon emitters in the chemical industry. Now is the time to break free from relying on virgin fossil inputs as a feedstock for the things we use in our daily lives,” said LanzaTech CEO Dr. Jennifer Holmgren.
Although we’ve come up with an increasing number of bio-based plastic alternatives, the sheer reliance on ethylene makes it difficult to replace.
This is where LanzaTech comes in with technology that skips the first few steps in the process, creating ethylene from carbon waste in a one-step process.
Further, this means no more virgin fossil fuels being pulled from underground to satisfy our thirst for plastic. Instead, it means producing materials such as sustainable fuels, fabrics, packaging and medical products by recycling carbon that’s already above ground.
The innovation uses biocatalysts to directly produce ethylene from CO2 in a continuous process, reducing enormous amounts of carbon in the air while providing still-necessary ethylene.
This is a massive industry, with an estimated 160 million tons of ethylene produced every year. It’s easily the most widely used petrochemical in the world. Not only does LanzaTech’s development reduce reliance on fossil fuels, but it makes use of existing carbon through an energy-efficient process and results in a relied-upon product. This is the building block for food packaging, sterile products in medicine, garbage bag liners, antifreeze, construction materials and much, much more.
As a feedstock for so many industries, the new mechanism of ethylene delivery offers a low-pollution and energy-efficient alternative. Businesses are taking note. Recently, investor Brookfield Renewables committed $500,000,000 to LanzaTech.
Last month, Woodside Energy and LanzaTech committed to a collaboration by signing the Strategic Framework Agreement. Additionally, Woodside has invested $50,000,000 in AMCI Acquisition Corp. II, which is set to merge with LanzaTech. The result will mean Woodside will design, construct, own, maintain and operate pilot facilities relating to LanzaTech’s technologies.
It’s been up and running
LanzaTech already has its primary technology up and running in multiple facilities around the globe. With these and other investments, it will continue to scale its innovations and operations. For a sampling of what that might look like, the company reports the first two plants have already produced over 50 million gallons of ethanol and states that is “the equivalent of offsetting the release of 200,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.”
You may be asking why we’re mentioning ethanol production here. In its initial round of innovations, LanzaTech developed a system of using carbon to produce ethanol and then converted it into ethylene. The newest technology compresses that process into a single step, avoiding ethanol production. However, this process is still in its infancy. These investments and agreements will help scale the process.
“With the ability to directly produce this bulk chemical commodity, we aim to make synthetic biology accessible and bring it to the people in everyday consumer goods. This is not a specialty chemical or a niche market, rather it is something that we believe will have a significant impact in the lives of billions of people daily, no matter how much you earn or where you live. This is an exceptional opportunity to implement meaningful carbon removal and create sustainable synthetic chemicals that we believe can replace fossil fuels forever,” said Dr. Holmgren.
In regards to climate change
This type of synthetic biology is a topic of conversation within climate change discussions. The recent Clean Energy Ministerial gathering brought world leaders to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Climate Week in New York. The discussion focused on how these alternatives can help in the fight against global warming as well as minimize the related effects to the economy, food supply issues and population stressors.
“I urge world and economic leaders to embrace the role synthetic biology can play in enabling the transition away from fossil fuels this world so desperately needs,” said Dr. Holmgren. “Let’s focus on what is in our power to transition away from virgin fossil inputs to create a carbon economy that transforms waste carbon into one of our most valuable commodities.”
It’s becoming less difficult to imagine the day. In fact, it may already be on the horizon.
Images via LanzaTech