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LanzaTech achieves carbon conversion “breakthrough”

© Shutterstock / Kateryna KonPost Thumbnail

Carbon capture and transformation specialist LanzaTech has announced an improved process to produce one of the world’s most widely used chemical building blocks. The ability to convert CO2 to ethylene replaces fossil fuel feedstocks.

  • LanzaTech’s transformation of captured CO2 into hydrocarbon ethylene provides an alternative feedstock to fossil fuels.
  • Ethylene is a critical chemical building block used in products ranging from plastics to detergent and clothing.
  • The process provides an alternative to the conventional fossil fuels process, which emits 1.47 tons of CO2 per ton of ethylene produced, and opens up opportunities for industrial carbon capture.

LanzaTech uses bacteria to convert waste CO2 into a range of different fuels and chemicals. Where it had previously been able to make ethylene by first converting CO2 into ethanol, it has now succeeded in eliminating the intermediary conversion step. In doing so, it has made the ethylene production process more efficient and less energy intensive. 

According to chief executive Dr. Jennifer Holmgren: “This is not a specialty chemical or a niche market, rather it is something that we believe will have 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 for to implement meaningful carbon removal and create sustainable synthetic chemicals that we believe can replace fossil fuels forever.”   

LanzaTech leverages synthetic biology to transform waste CO2 into valuable commodities 

LanzaTech’s platform combines synthetic biology, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to precisely engineer proprietary microbes that consume waste gases and enable their fermentation into sustainable versions of chemicals and fuels that are conventionally made from fossil fuels. 

To date, it has primarily focused on producing ethanol, with its first two commercial scale facilities generated over 30 million gallons while offsetting the equivalent of more than 150,000 metric tons of CO2.

The ethanol it produces can be broken down into various chemical building blocks, including ethylene, which can then be used to make a wide range of consumer goods such as cleaning products, textiles, food packaging or fine fragrances. 

As such, LanzaTech’s approach goes beyond reducing industrial CO2 emissions to enable more sustainable, and even circular, economic opportunities. As Holmgren puts it: “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.” 

What is ethylene? 

Ethylene is a vital feedstock in the production of polymers and other key chemicals. It is used to make plastics, fibres and other organic materials that are used in a wide range of industrial and consumer markets such as packaging, transportation and construction. 

Conventional ethylene production involves using high temperature furnaces to remove the hydrogen atoms from the long-chain hydrocarbons generated by crude oil and natural gas distillation. 

As well as being dependent on fossil fuels, the process is extremely energy intensive. It is estimated to account for around 10% of the chemical industry’s total energy consumption, emitting around 1.47 tons of CO2 per ton of ethylene produced. 

Analysis suggests that approximately 214 million metric tons of ethylene were produced in 2021, an increase of more than 15% from 2018. The market is expected to continue expanding at a compounded annual growth rate of 6.2% to reach $136.37 billion by 2026. 

With the chemical industry responsible for an estimated 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, the decarbonisation of core building blocks such as ethylene will be critical in achieving global climate goals. 

The chemicals industry is under pressure to decarbonise 

Chemical companies are both an upstream consumer of fossil fuels and a downstream provider to an expansive range of industrial sectors. As such, they face pressure not only to reduce their own carbon footprints but also to contribute to customers’ supply chain goals. 

According to consultancy Systemiq, however, only 17% of the industry’s biggest companies have committed to climate targets that align with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. The chemical sector has historically struggled to measure and report on its total impact, but various voluntary and regulatory measures are paving the way for emissions disclosure to become the norm.  

The Science-based Targets Initiative, for example, is currently developing resources to support the chemicals industry in defining its climate goals. Major corporate players including Henkel (XETR:HEN3), Merck (NYSE:MRK) and BASF (XETR:BAS) are also collaborating to define guidelines for reporting the sector’s Scope 3 emissions. 

Policy measures are also being introduced to improve the transparency of sustainable investment opportunities, such as the EU’s Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation, the UK’s climate-related financial disclosure legislation and the proposed ruling of the US Securities and Exchange Commission. These regulations will add further pressure to chemicals companies, as investors will be unwilling to back those that fail to measure, disclose and address their CO2 emissions. 

Economic factors will provide further incentives for chemical companies to decarbonise, as fossil-fuel derived building blocks such as ethylene are tied to the price sensitivities of oil and gas.

Alternative feedstocks could not only lessen this dependency, but it could also enable firms to gain competitive advantage by enhancing their reputation or charging premium prices for more sustainable products. 

LanzaTech’s breakthrough could provide multiple benefits 

LanzaTech’s ability to directly produce ethylene from waste CO2 offers a cheap, efficient and resourceful opportunity for the chemicals industry to continue their operations while also achieving their emissions reduction targets. 

Furthermore, its use of captured CO2 creates synergies with other emissions intensive industries, such as steelmaking or power generation, by allowing what is normally now seen as a liability to become a saleable, industrial commodity.

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