Against the Odds

Continuing down the path where many have floundered, LanzaTech’s momentum is undeniable.
By Katie Schroeder | March 21, 2023

When LanzaTech was founded in New Zealand in 2005, the company was born out of a desire to find solutions. At its inception, the founders were looking for a waste feedstock that was abundant and inexpensive. They found their solution in a bacteria that could consume carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide and turn it into fuel, explains Freya Burton, chief sustainability officer at LanzaTech.

Burton discussed the company’s projects, purpose and goals with SAF Magazine, beginning by pointing out that the landscape around utilization of CO2, carbon recycling and decarbonization has changed for the better in recent years. She and her team have witnessed accelerated progress as more people have become familiar with what those things mean, and how they work. There was a time when people viewed LanzaTech's vision as impossible—but that is no longer the case, according to Burton. “When LanzaTech started, it was based on the idea of using biology as a solution for this very modern problem of too much carbon in our atmosphere,” she says. “We identified a living organism that can essentially eat carbon in gases and use that as food, and as it grows, it makes things like ethanol and other chemicals. So, it’s very similar to traditional fermentation, where sugar and yeast are needed to make alcohol, but instead of sugars, it’s carbon in gas form. Or, you can take solid waste and superheat it to make a gas stream, and instead of a yeast, we use a living bacteria.”

Burton explains that simply put, the LanzaJet alcohol-to-jet process developed over many years by LanzaTech and Pacific Northwest National Lab works by connecting long chains of carbons to make SAF. Beyond SAF, the ethanol can be transformed into ethylene and other building blocks used in a wide variety of products, anything from fabric to packaging to cleaning fluid. These uses have been tested through partnerships with clothing brands Zara and Lululemon, and flights with Virgin Atlantic and All Nippon Airways using SAF made from carbon emissions, as well as other partnerships. “That’s the beauty of biology; it can make lots of different things—it’s not a one-trick pony, taking one type of input and getting one type of output,” Burton says.

Launching SAF
In order to further pursue its alcohol-to-jet fuel efforts, LanzaTech launched another company in 2020—LanzaJet—to commercialize the process. Since its launch, the company has been making headlines for its Freedom Pines plant in Soperton, Georgia. The plant will produce 10 MMgy of SAF and renewable diesel using its alcohol-to-jet process. Feedstock will be undenatured ethanol from woody biomass. The pilot plant at the location was successful, so now, the company’s focus is on scaling up the technology to commercial volumes.

The volume demand for SAF is huge, Burton explains. Currently, there are nearly 100 billion gallons of jet fuel used each year, according to pre-COVID statistics. She says that by a conservative estimate, 10 billion gallons of SAF will be needed over the next 10 to 15 years. “Today, we only make a tiny percentage [of that volume],” she says. “So, we really need feedstocks that are abundant and available. We don’t want to have only jet fuel made from fats and oils. We don’t want it to come from sugars or things that we need to grow and can be [food]. We want to use a feedstock that is available and essentially a problem, so that’s why using waste as a feedstock for jet fuel is really interesting.”
Tests run on LanzaJet’s aviation fuel have shown up to a 90% reduction in particulates within jet contrails, Burton explains. It is important that both carbon removal and carbon recycling are used as tools to help reduce emissions overall, she says.

The company’s SAF projects are by no means limited to the U.S. LanzaTech has also announced a partnership with Vattenfall, a Swedish power company, to use CO2 from its heating plant as a feedstock for SAF, as well as with SkyNRG to develop a project called FLITE (Fuel via Low Carbon Integrated Technology), which is planned to produce 30,000 tons per year of SAF from waste-based ethanol. And, LanzaJet’s Project DRAGON (Decarbonizing and Reimagining Aviation for the Goal of Netzero) is expected to be collocated with a steel mill in Wales, using steel mill emissions to produce jet fuel.

As well as its SAF efforts, LanzaTech is developing its technology for creating carbon-negative chemicals. The goal is to be able to convert CO2 or carbon monoxide directly into chemicals like acetone and ethylene, which are important commodity chemicals around the world. “We’re spending a lot of time focused on these areas, which highlight our synthetic biology capability. In a sense, we can turn off the ethanol gene. Once that’s off, it actually diverts all its power to making other things,” Burton says. “We can also tailor our microbe specifically to make targeted chemicals using synthetic biology. We're finding that we can make these chemicals, and that’s pretty exciting.”

Company Challenges
Throughout the 18 years of LanzaTech’s existence, the company has faced and overcome many different challenges. The biggest has been money and funding, especially in a post-COVID-19 world. Lanzatech’s investors and funders include All Nippon Airways, British Airways, Mitsui & Co., Suncor Energy, Shell, and the Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund. The company went public earlier this year, beginning stock trading on Feb. 10.

 Since 2020, Burton notes, there has been an increased awareness of health and wellbeing, and environmental concerns along with that. She says more companies are looking for ways to “do better” because consumers are interested in spending their money on sustainable products, and the interest in LanzaTech's technology has increased as airlines, clothing providers and more are looking to bring such products to market. “As an example, Unilever has a really strong commitment to delivering sustainable products to their customers, because they want them,” she says.

The other obstacle LanzaTech has faced is the awareness of the industry. “I’ve been with the company since it started, and back then we were laughed out of the room. People thought we were the crazy ones. Even five years ago, you would not have seen the language around carbon use, carbon recycling, carbon tech—all of these things didn’t really exist in the public eye,” Burton says. She and her team have witnessed this change in the past few years as the terminology and concepts of carbon recycling and reduction have become more widespread, and people have begun to understand that it’s possible.

In the midst of all these challenges, LanzaTech has persevered under the leadership of their CEO, Jennifer Holmgren, whose energy and passion have propelled the company forward. “She’s relentless,” Burton says. “She has always been told, ‘You can’t do this, that’s impossible.’ She’s been trying to scale a technology people just thought it was impossible. Even when we launched LanzaJet, they were like, ‘That’s not going to work.’ It may be people continuing to say that which is what further motivates us to say, ‘Watch us, we’re going to do this.’  Jennifer inspires this kind of optimism and hope.”

Burton adds that Holmgren does a great job reminding the company of the successes they have experienced in the energy space—for example, seeing clothing made of steel mill emissions, and the plants they have operating today.

When reflecting on her career, Burton says that when she started, she thought that creating and scaling the technology would be the most challenging component of the concept. Now, she instead believes that it is actually the work involved to get people to rethink carbon, and challenging the fossil fuels, chemical and energy industries. Encouraging people to rethink carbon is very difficult, Burton admits. “That’s hard, and it’s only through this dogged determination that we’ve managed to get here,” she says. “I wish it was a prettier answer, but I think you have to be like that to make these things happen.”

Past Landmarks, Future Goals
LanzaTech’s tireless, determined work has led to some exciting developments, and Burton has a few highlights that have stuck with her. The first flight with Virgin Atlantic in 2018 was an exciting experience, she says. Being able to order clothes from Zara that are made out of carbon emissions was also an important milestone. But for Burton, the most meaningful accomplishment has been witnessing the conversation around sustainability efforts begin to include carbon recycling. “I’m not saying it was LanzaTech singlehandedly, but it is rewarding to see the dialogue change. I have said it a few times, but when people say you’re crazy for so many years, it’s nice to finally prove that maybe we aren’t.”

Solutions that will reuse or reduce carbon emissions are crucial, whether they involve stopping emissions at the source by developing low- to negative-carbon fuels, or recycling carbon. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Burton adds. “There's a gap between how much SAF is made today [and] that conservative volume that we need, and we need [to fill] that. We need all solutions. That would be my main message—we’re running out of time, and we need everybody to create volume.”

Author: Katie Schroeder
Staff Writer, SAF Magazine
[email protected]