The Culturing Revolution: LanzaTech extends to chemicals as Year of SynthBio gains pace

August 24, 2010 |

China's "Destruction of the Four Olds" campaign, in the Cultural Revolution, failed spectacularly, but aimed to curb complacency that ossified a transforming society

In New Zealand, LanzaTech announced that it has produced 2,3-Butanediol (2,3-BD), a key building block used to make polymers, plastics and hydrocarbon fuels, using the company’s gas fermentation technology.

Digest readers will recall that LanzaTech, voted the #41 Hottest Company in Bioenergy last year by Digest readers and expected to make a strong run in this years rankings, announced a partnership last June with China’s largest steel and iron conglomerate, Baosteel, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences and LanzaTech to commercialize its technologies for producing ethanol from steel mill off gases.

Some background on LanzaTech

Our most recent analysis of the LanzaTech value proposition appeared last month at the time it raised $18 million in its Series B financing, led by Qiming Ventures, a well known China focused venture capital firm. In “Zen and the Art of Biofuels Development“, asking: “Does LanzaTech represent a new way to extract value, or a new way to understand it?”

We noted at the time that a technology that ferments waste steel gases into fuels and chemicals would find a real home in China, which makes 35 percent of the world’s steel and needs additional energy sources to fuel its astonishing growth rate. For that reason, we tipped LanzaTech at #8 in “IPO fever…Who’s Next?“, noting “A sleeper, just now expanding into China, where it can deploy its steel gas-to-ethanol technology in a country that has a lot of steel, many reasons to use ethanol, and not too many options among food crops. There’s reason to suppose it might find its financing [for scale] on the Asian exchanges.”

Making fuels and chemicals from waste gases

LanzaTech CEO Dr Jennifer Holmgren says the New Zealand clean tech company is the first to demonstrate that this platform chemical can be produced via fermentation from gases, from waste gas resources in an industrial setting.

LanzaTech’s microbial gas fermentation process potentially enables chemicals production to be decoupled from petroleum and valuable food resources. Conventional approaches for the production of polymers and plastics require chemical building blocks normally prepared from the cracking of petroleum or through fermentation of sugars. However, LanzaTech’s process uses nonfood, low value gas feed stocks, including industrial waste gases such as those produced by steel mills, oil refineries, coal manufacturing , syngas from landfill-waste and reformed natural gas.

2,3-BD can be readily converted to intermediaries like butenes, butadiene and methyl ethyl ketone that are used in the production of hydrocarbon fuels and a variety of chemicals including polymers, synthetic rubbers, plastics and textiles.

The LanzaTech edge

While the conversion of synthesis gases into fuels is not a new process, LanzaTech does something quite different. It ferments them with its proprietary bacteria. Modify the bacteria, modify the material produced. These days, easier to modify bacteria than develop a new inorganic catalyst to radically transform the output from syngas.

LanzaTech in China, and China’s rapidly growing fleet

China’s growth rate is universally known, but the speed and intensity of its growth in automobiles and petroleums usage would surprise many. In fact, is is surprising the Chinese. Just this week, a massive traffic jam in north of Beijing erupted, so intense that it stretches 60 miles with cars and trucks moving as slowly as one half-mile (1 km) per day. That is not a typo. Trucks are being stranded for days in these pile-ups as China struggles to massively expand its highway and road infrastructure.

What does that mean for biofuels? In this case, Baosteel Metal and LanzaTech will construct an ethanol demonstration plant at one of Baosteel’s steel mills, with the intention of quickly scaling the model again for the construction of the first fully commercial plant in China. The demonstration facility is expected to be in operation in the second half of 2011. LanzaTech has run a pilot plant at NZ Steel in New Zealand since 2008, and has expanded its process to utilize biomass syngas.

The Four Cleanups Movement

But more than this, LanzaTech is an integration story. CEO Jennifer Holmgren, recently nabbed from Honeywell’s UOP where she headed that company’s widely-praised foray into aviation biofuels, described what might be known as the “four cleanups movement” of the biofuels value chain. These are four types of integration, achieved through the culturing and development of advanced bacteria, that can monetize as they remediate, turn China’s waste into feedstocks, and bioprocess problems into opportunities. It does so by attacking fixed ideas of what is, and what is not, waste, and what is and what is not a feedstock.

The development also attacks a known choke point in producing biofuels and renewable chemicals from gases: the cost of transporting biomass and gasifying it.

The four cleans ups in the value  chain, according to Holmgren, are:

• Integration of the fuels and chemicals value chain by producing both fuels and chemicals
• Integration of biochemical and thermochemical approaches (our 23BD can be converted to hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals using known thermocatalytic routes)
• Integration of new clean tech processes with heavy industry/manufacturing approaches and facilities
• Integration with existing infrastructure by making drop in fuels and chemicals

Scale

Asked about the scale at which the company had produced the result, LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren commented, “We’ve made it on the pilot scale. I wouldn’t want to talk about something we have seen micrograms in one experiment. The key to getting this down the cost curve lies in cost effective isolation of the 2,3- Butanediol, as it’s high boiling. Also, a cost effective approach for taking this alcohol to the desired olefins (butylene and butadiene) since these are the true chemical building blocks. It’s all doable but as with all things new – it’s all about the execution.”

A culturing revolution

Let’s put the LanzaTech announcement in the context of other synthetic biology developments these past months in bioenergy. Amyris’ developments with yeast, leading to its IPO. Joule and LS9’s work on e.coli. Gevo’s biocatalysts and enzymes. Novozynes and Genecor racing to halve the cost of enzymatic hydrolysis. The change is so abrupt this year that we can begin to see, to extend the China metaphor, 2010 as a sort of disruptive, turbulent Culturing Revolution, reminiscent of 1966-67’s “Four Cleanups Movement” and the “Destruction of the Four Olds” campaigns.

What was a political disaster at the human scale, may well prove to be the tipping point at the microscopic scale — in this Culturing Revolution, it is not only about yield improvement, but about source transformation.

A report today referenced elsewhere in the Digest today contends that it will take 15 billion metric tonnes of biomass to produce the biofuels of tomorrow in the scale called for by the IEA to mitigate the onset of climate change. Companies like LanzaTech and Joule Unlimited are challenging the very foundation of those assumptions as quickly as they are published.

How many pounds of biomass does it take to change a lightbulb’s energy source? According to biofuels’ critics, too much. According to its vanguard of technologists, maybe not very much at all.

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