Holmgren isn’t disclosing the specific organism the company uses, but says it is a version of an organism that can naturally produce ethanol from carbon monoxide. The company modified it to produce the fuel at “commercially interesting rates,” she says. LanzaTech also recently announced that it had engineered a microorganism that can produce 2,3-butanediol, a chemical precursor that can be used to make the solvent methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), which is used in dry erase markers and in the manufacture of plastics and textiles. The same chemical can produce butanes and butadiene, which can then be used to make a variety of plastics and hydrocarbon fuels.
Only a few companies are taking a similar approach. Among them are the Illinois companies Ineos Bio, based in Lisle, and Coskata, based in Warrenville. Both use bacteria to make fuel or chemicals from a combination of both carbon monoxide and hydrogen. LanzaTech is targeting steel mills because they produce flue gases that typically contain carbon monoxide but no hydrogen. It has demonstrated ethanol production at a steel mill; the pilot plant at the mill can produce 15,000 gallons of the fuel per year.
This summer, LanzaTech announced it had signed a letter of intent with Baosteel, a large Chinese steel maker. The companies intend to build a demonstration plant next year capable of producing approximately 100,000 gallons of fuel, and then add to that plant to make a full-scale commercial plant that can generate more than 50 million gallons a year. LanzaTech also has a deal with the Henan Coal and Chemical Industries Corporation in China to produce fuel and chemicals at a plant that will run on gasified coal.
Since it was founded in 2005, LanzaTech has raised $30 million in venture capital and $10 million from the New Zealand government. Holmgren says her company’s price for making ethanol is “quite competitive: in fact, we’re close to being able to make ethanol without subsidies.” She says that while the chemical market is smaller than the fuel market, it can be more profitable, since chemicals such as MEK sell for more than twice the price of ethanol.
Aden says the company will face several challenges when scaling up the technology. Among them: ensuring that the gases can be dissolved for the bugs’ consumption in large reactors, not just the small ones used in pilot plants.