Algae to fuel developers: LanzaTech is supersizing our fries

August 14, 2013 |

lanzatechAt the leading edge of lipid technology, scientists turn to the french fry of biofuels, acetates, to grow more renewable oils faster, cheaper.

Unsurprisingly, we find LanzaTech’s cohort of carbonpreneurs in Malaysia and especially India right in the thick of it.

Today’s hottest news comes from LanzaTech, and India’s Centre for Advanced Bio-Energy, which have partnered to create a new process for the direct conversion of waste CO2 into “drop-in” fuels through an acetates-to-lipids pathway.

LanzaTech had previously developed gas fermentation technology that can directly convert waste CO2 gases into acetates. The Centre for Advanced Bio-Energy, a joint venture between Indian Oil Corporation and the Indian government’s Department for Biotechnology is working to increase the production yield of lipids (oils) by “feeding” acetates to microalgae.

Two of the underlying economic challenges of the bioeconomy have remained the relative inefficiency of lipid production by terrestrial plants, and the high cost of sugars.

Between them, they have bedeviled the cost structures for “traditional” products processes such as biodiesel and ethanol — biodiesel has struggled with the high costs of traditional biobased oils (e.g. soybean oil), while ethanol has struggled with the cost of corn and cane sugars.

The “crush spread” — that is, the difference between the price of underlying sugars (and oils) and the fuels that they can replace can be a) insufficient to justify any production at all or b) a risky rollercoaster that many investors choose to bypass.

In addition to the difficulties experienced by first-generation biofuels companies – sugar is an underlying feedstock for companies like Amyris, LS9 and Solazyme, which have an array of downstream fuels and chemicals that can be derived from their processes. But observers have noted that the high cost of sugars has limited their opportunities in the mass market of fuels.

So, what’s a promising sector to do?

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Generally, the search has been on for a) low-cost sugars, via processes such as Sweetwater Energy, Renmatix and Proterro have been working on; b) gasification-based technologies that use a broader array of feedstocks, and all of them rather than just the starch and sugar fractions — such as KiOR, Enerkem, Coskata, INEOS Bio and ZeaChem have been working on; or c) novel feedstocks that are so odious and valueless that they can be aggregated at low- or even negative cost – such as flue gas, brown grease, rendering fats and oils, or municipal solid waste.

In turn, these run into the problem that once a market emerges, residues rapidly acquire value. Consider that gasoline was considered a virtually valueless waste byproduct of petroleum refining, years ago.

The problem of making commodities from commodities

The solution? Take a page from gasoline’s story. That is, find a feedstock so abundant that the marginal cost of adding supply remains low even when demand rapidly increases. You see, that’s been the problem with, to use an example, fryer oil. Waste cooking oil used to be a byproduct that restaurants and institutions would pay to get rid of. Once biodiesel producers figured out how to use it, the price rose astronomically because the supply of cooking oil was insignificant compared to the demand for fuels.

For other agricultural residues, there have been the further bedevilments of high capital expense and high cost of aggregation. For traditional crops and for forest products, there has been the competition represented by traditional markets for food, feed and fiber — or by competitors for arable land such as urban sprawl.

All of these combine so that that the marginal cost of added fuel capacity escalates rapidly, and puts a stopper on growth.

So, its not surprising that technologists turn to carbon dioxide and non-potable water — since they are available in such tantalizing abundance. So, on have come the algae technologies — or sophisticated entries such as Joule that produce hydrocarbon and alcohol fuels directly via the secretions from cyanobacteria.

To date, a difficult barrier in making microalgae technologies economically feasible has been the tendency of algae to produce very little lipid — unless they are starved of key nutrients such as nitrogen — which gives you much more lipids but tends to slow down growth rates. Left on their own, algae tend to produce starch much more readily than they produce oil.

Which is why it is highly significant that, last year, researchers from Brookhaven National Lab reported that they had identified a way around the problem.

As we noted last June in the Digest, ramping up the microbes’ overall metabolism by feeding them more carbon increases oil production as the organisms continue to grow. As the Brookhaven team observed, “The main finding was that feeding the algae more carbon (in the form of acetate) quickly maxed out the production of starch to the point that any additional carbon was channeled into high-gear oil production. And, most significantly, under the excess carbon condition and without nutrient deprivation, the microbes kept growing while producing oil.”

Which makes acetate the French Fry of the algae world — overeat, make lipids, get fat. That’s what India’s Centre for Advanced Bio-Energy has been working on.

Lipids from acetates

Siemens und LanzaTech wollen Bioethanol aus Stahlwerksabgasen erzeugen / Siemens and LanzaTech partner to transform steel mill off-gases into bioethanol

And, happily, LanzaTech has figured out a way to make acetate from abundant sources of CO2 and waste hydrogen.

Lipids from acetates – a number of the top scientists around the country have been working on the problem. In addition to the team at Brookhaven, MIT’s renowned Greg Stephanopolous has demonstrated lipid yields from carbohydrates using yeast, while WSU’s redoubtable Shulin Chen has developed a fungi process using acetate, lignocellulosics, and other cellulosic-derived organic feedstock to lipids.

What’s different here? Algae, for one.

As LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren explained to the Digest, “We leverage our CO platform to convert CO2 directly – so we have the reactor systems etc to efficiently do gas fermentation and we have extended that to CO2 work. This is what the Petronas project is all about.  It is worth noting that we need H2 to make this work.  CO has Carbon and energy for the organism (just like sugar does) but CO2 only has carbon.  To get energy CO2 eating organisms can – get it from the sun (algae), from electrons (our bacteria can do that but it is a longer term project) or H2.  So unlike the CO case – we have to add Hydrogen.  There are cheap sources of hydrogen –especially in steel mills and chemicals plants… and of course there is plenty of CO2.”

So, what happens?

“The organism takes the CO2 + H2 and effectively converts it to acetate,” Holmgren explained.”The Center for Advanced Bioenergy Research can take our acetate and convert it to lipids (indeed, the same lipids that can be used to make drop in fuels and Solazyme makes into wonderful products like flour, creams etc.).”

So – a two-step method?

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“Integration of the technologies gives you a CO2 to lipid system ,” Holmgren added. “Much like algae with our organism and theirs working in concert to produce the lipids.  While the world makes great progress on algae, we thought this is an alternate approach which could also contribute to the future fuel pool.  We will see how good the economics can be.”

Why India?

LanzaTech has already been working with Indian Oil, India’s largest national oil company, to develop a domestic ethanol supply chain by leveraging LanzaTech’s technology with a range of carbon- containing waste streams widely available in India, including industrial carbon monoxide (CO) emissions from steel plants. India is projected to become the world’s second largest steel producer by 2015, providing a significant opportunity to produce biofuel. LanzaTech estimates that hundreds of millions of gallons of ethanol could be produced annually by utilizing waste CO from steel mills.

“India is on the move,” said Holmgren.  “A lot of wisdom in trying to tackle energy security while trying to deal with a growing population, industrial growth and reducing their carbon intensity.  I find that globally – there is no debate about carbon.  The imperative to diversify to low carbon feedstocks is every where as is the vision to do so.  We are fortunate to be able to leverage great biotech in India and couple that with their interest to reduce carbon.”

The Bottom Line

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We sure like LanzaTech’s CO to ethanol technology — and LT has now completed the engineering packages for multiple commercial scale units in China.  At last word, they are still on target for having at least one commercial unit which utilizes steel mill gases to produce ethanol through a biological organism in 2014.

But as alternatives go, this isn’t a bad one at all — in fact, highly promising. Even more promising is the scope of collaboration. Not only is there deep engagement now between LanzaTech and its Indian partners; there are obviously the Chinese partners in the steel industry, such as BaoSteel, who are working with LanzaTech on its CO-to-ethanol technology.

But add to this an intriguing collaboration between Malaysian petrochemical giant Petronas and LanzaTech — in fact that’s where the impetus has come, in the first place, for extending the capabilities of LanzaTech’s little microbe to utilize CO2.

Indian Oil, BaoSteel, Petronas — it’s a mighty set of parters focused on one really eency-weency microbial factory. Small wonder that LanzaTech’s technology is, reportedly, among the key favorities of Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin airline group is deeply engaged in the sector in search of low-carbon fuels.

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