E Pluribus, Unum: LanzaTech, Global Bioenergies demonstrate The Biotechnology App Store

January 10, 2016 |

BD TS 011116 bacteriapp-cover-smAs Global Bioenergies, LanzaTech tighten isobutene partnership, the era of “swap-in, swap out” biorefining microbes comes clearer, closer

In France, Global Bioenergies  and LanzaTech signed a new collaboration agreement to broaden the feedstock flexibility of Global Bioenergies’ Isobutene process and the product-portfolio of LanzaTech’s carbon capture technology.  The news illustrates a new trend in the story of synthetic biology: the migration from the old “hardware” oil and grain refinery model to a model based on apps. In this case, proven, trained-up microbes that can each produce a target molecule from waste carbon.

Shifts in worldwide demand? Pull out the old bug, swap in the new.

As LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren remarks, “Since it is biology and the reactor doesn’t change, the production of new chemicals can be done with a flick of a bug…  produce ethanol today, butadiene pricing goes up, no need to put more steel in the ground, flick the butadiene bug in for a campaign and produce butadiene while the price is still high.  So you aren’t 2 years behind a cycle.  I think of it as hardware, software.  You’ve installed the hardware now just add a new version of the software or a different app.”

Beyond traded commodities

But there’s more. In the petroleum and sugar markets, these are traded commodities, subject to wild swings in pricing that are the hallmark of the fossil market. How to get beyond that? Use feedstocks that only a handful of companies can unlock the value of, like waste carbon. In LanzaTech’s case, captured from steel mill off-gases — not a commodity available on the Chicago Board of Trade, for sure.

Permanent carbon sequestration without the expense of trapping CO2 in a cavern somewhere

In the end, the most sensible way to sequester carbon is to convert it to a durable product. “If we can do that, convert waste carbon rich gases to a chemicals like butadiene which can then be converted to rubber or nylon,” says Holmgren, “we will be effectively sequestering the carbon in a durable good vs geologically.  How neat is that!  What a way to reduce our carbon footprint. Not only recycling carbon and giving it another life but doing it in a way which permanently locks carbon into a product.  This is without doubt, the way to a low-carbon future.”

Beyond a foolish “all eggs, one basket” approach

The automobile was going to power everything, so Los Angeles tore up its extensive streetcar network in the 1920s. The atomic reactor was going to power everything, so no one worried much about the potential for import petroleum dependency in the 1950s and 1960s. The Synthetic Fuel Corporation was going to cure everything, until it didn’t. Single-cell protein would save the Soviet Union, until it didn’t. Ethanol was going to save the world from addiction of oil, until it didn’t. Fracking was going to save the world, until the rig counts began to crash.

Now, it’s renewable electricity, basically solar, that is going to save us all. Only it won’t, and probably nothing will “save us” until we embrace the joys of portfolios, and technologies that get on base instead of technologies that hit home runs. It’s the principle of Moneyball, and a principle of diversification that successfully powers modern investment theory.

So, fuels have a big place in the low-carbon society. And those that advocate them are those who believe in portfolio theory.

Holmgren agrees. “We have to globally take singles and doubles to get to the end result of changing the world’s carbon footprint.  We cannot always try for home runs or hail Marys, continuing the football analogy, we cannot afford to fall so far behind in the global carbon game. We have to change how we think and how we behave about how we are going to have a future low-carbon economy.”

So, sequestration diversification, energy diversification, product diversification and feedstock diversification.  The key word here begins with D and ends with iversification.

E Pluribus Unum

quarterBut there’s an easier way to think of it, and a convenient place to find it. From many technologies and inputs comes, all rolled up, one big solution.  Put more plainly, out of many, one. To put it in Latin, e pluribus unum. You can find it on any US coin, and it’s no mistake to associate that philosophy with money. Those who practice the philosophy have the money. Those who don’t, watch the money slip through their fingers and spend the rest of eternity explaining the 16,000 reasons they should be forgiven for not foreseeing the unforeseeable.

Of course, the future is always unforeseeable, as any reader of business plans will confirm to you that there are never any unfavorable macroeconomic events in forecasts. No 9/11, no Great Recession, No Global Oil Meltdown. All we know is that tomorrow will bring unforeseen terrors and opportunities, and for the same reason that the golfer carrying 14 clubs always defeats the golfer carrying one, diversification wins.

E Pluribus Unum.

More about the LanzaTech, Global BIoenergies technology

Global Bioenergies has developed a process in which a microorganism can produce isobutene from renewable feedstock. Whereas the company’s primary focus has historically been to use industrial-grade or waste-derived sugars as feedstocks, the technological maturity of the process now allows us to envision a broader range of feedstocks, including non-biomass-derived sources of carbon.

LanzaTech’s carbon recycling technology enables the bio-based transformation of industrial wastes, such as carbon monoxide and/or carbon dioxide and hydrogen, into valuable commodities. Waste gases from the chemistry of steel making, for example, can be captured and recycled into biofuels or chemicals such as acetone and others. LanzaTech is currently building its first commercial facilities, which will produce ethanol from waste steel mill gases. These ethanol facilities will be able to change production to chemicals if desired through application of LanzaTech’s novel microorganisms.

The collaboration backstory

The two companies entered into a collaboration agreement in 2011, with the goal to synergize their technologies, and build microbial strains capable of converting non-sugar feedstock into isobutene. Based on the results obtained during these four years, the two companies have now entered a new collaboration agreement in order to both intensify this cooperation and to develop, an integrated process.

Reaction from the stakeholders

Marc Delcourt, CEO at Global Bioenergies, states: “The diversification of feedstocks will leverage the technology of Global Bioenergies, and will be an important asset for the massive deployment of our technology on the mid-term.”

Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech, states: “The expansion of our synthetic biology portfolio has shown gas fermenting microbes to have the same capabilities as sugar fermenting organisms. We are now able to produce a variety of chemicals from a broad array of gas feedstocks, driving both economic and environmental benefits.”



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