Sunday, December 18, 2022

Turning Garbage into Gold

Recycling carbon: it just makes sense


Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO, LanzaTech (LanzaTech website)

This woman’s idea is all about turning garbage into gold. She’s Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech, and her company has invented a technology that transforms pollution, including carbon emissions, into sustainable fuels, fabrics, packaging, and other products we use daily.

She is transforming waste carbon into valuable and sustainable new products. Like what? Like clothing: fashion company Zara, for instance, has sold a dress made with polyester material that started as steel mill emissions. 

How? Carbon emissions, like polluting emissions stemming from the burning of fossil fuels and the manufacture of cement, are converted by bacteria into fuels and chemicals. The company website states that the “carbon emissions are fed to trillions of carbon-hungry microbes that turn that pollution into valuable raw material commodities.” Carbon is no longer regarded as a “liability” but becomes new low-carbon products for everyday use.

This actually means that gas that was going to be expelled from the flue or chimney of a steel mill into the atmosphere, for example, is captured and converted into things, such as clothing, detergents, shoes, and jet fuel.

An article in Renewable Matter magazine explains the process this way, “LanzaTech uses special microbes in a gas fermentation process that enables ethanol to be produced from residual gases that contain carbon monoxide and hydrogen. By reusing waste streams, industrial companies can reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” 

“We recycle glass, paper, plastics and metals, so why not carbon? CO2 levels are rising as air quality declines. Emissions don’t have to be a liability. LanzaTech recycles carbon today for a cleaner tomorrow. LanzaTech microbes capture and reuse waste gases from a variety of sources. The process helps to improve air quality and making new low-carbon products for everyday use.” – LanzaTech YouTube video

Holmgren asserts that enough carbon in waste above the ground already exists to make all the products people need. Her company uses bacteria to convert waste gas emissions such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) into ethanol. It’s possible also to use municipal solid, biomass or forestry residues, and gasify them, turning that gas into ethanol using the bacteria. Ethanol is important to the process because it is an intermediate that can be used to make chemicals and other key materials. It’s an organic compound that is colorless and slightly toxic (and is best known as the alcohol in alcoholic beverages). LanzaTech uses ethanol as a “building block, a way to aggregate the carbon and the energy in the waste resources. The ethanol is converted to ethylene and then into sustainable aviation fuel” or other products. 

According to Holmgren, Unilever sells detergents made with “CarbonSmart” ethanol. On, the running shoe company, in collaboration with Borealis and Technip Energies, the sportswear brand, has created a running shoe made from a foam derived from carbon emissions as its raw material. In another example, Lululemon Athletica sells running shorts in polyester made from ethanol that was produced by the pollution-eating bacteria.

The possibilities seem endless. As Holmgren affirms, “We should be rethinking carbon, thinking that refining is about waste carbon and not just about fresh fossil carbon, and know that biology is able to make the things we need and is able to make waste into products. It’s called a ‘post-pollution future’ where there is no pollution because there is no waste. Pollution is the feedstock of the future.”

Imagine todays’ steel mill emissions becoming tomorrow’s running shoes, yoga pants or food and drink containers!

Featured image: The bacterium Clostridium autoethanogenum (in light blue) engineered at LanzaTech that produces ethanol from CO (Credit: Andy Sproles/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy)

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