LanzaTech lands federal support for ethanol-to-jet fuel

By Kris Bevill | September 02, 2011

LanzaTech, a New Zealand-based technology development firm with offices in the U.S. and China, has been awarded $4 million in U.S. DOE funding to further its technology to produce ethanol and chemicals from waste gases. By producing valuable chemicals in addition to ethanol, LanzaTech believes ethanol production can be driven down to a cost that makes its conversion to jet fuel competitive with current jet fuel prices.

“When you make a valuable coproduct, you drive the overall cost of production down,” CEO Jennifer Holmgren said. “We’re doing exactly what the [petroleum] guys have done all along. We’re never just going to make the chemical. We’re going to make the chemical to enable the ethanol market. And then it turns out that if we make the ethanol cheap enough, it can be converted to jet fuel.”

LanzaTech’s technology is currently used primarily to convert waste gases at industrial facilities to ethanol and a chemical known as 2,3-butanediol. While the market for 2,3-butanediol is not especially large, LanzaTech believes that chemical is a precursor to butadiene, which can be used to make synthetic rubber, resins, polymers and C4 chemical intermediates. It represents a $20 billion market, according to Holmgren. LanzaTech has been collaborating with the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory since late 2010 to prove that theory and optimize the conversion process.

As part of the DOE-funded project, LanzaTech will utilize biomass-based gases rather than industrial flue gases to produce ethanol. Biomass gasification systems at the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which are fueled by a variety of sources including corn stover, bagasse and wood waste, will be the source of gas for ethanol and chemical production. After LanzaTech produces those products, ethanol will be sent to PNNL, where researchers there are collaborating with biodiesel producer Imperium Renewables Inc. to convert ethanol to jet fuel. “That’s what the DOE wants,” Holmgren said. “They want us to work on ethanol, but also longer-term they’ve started to increasingly focus on making drop-in hydrocarbon fuels.”

LanzaTech believes that rather than producing drop-in hydrocarbon fuels initially, they can produce ethanol cheaply and convert that into a drop-in hydrocarbon. LanzaTech’s technology can be used to produce either 100 percent ethanol, or a mix of up to 40 percent 2,3-butanediol and 60 percent ethanol, Holmgren said. The DOE project has a lifespan of three years and is very small scale, but Holmgren believes portions of the process will be scaled up well before the project concludes, adding that existing ethanol plants may have the opportunity to integrate the process into their facilities in about 15 months.