Clean, renewable, sustainable energy are buzzwords of the 21st century. Homegrown biotech pioneer in the field, LanzaTech, has notched up numerous international accolades in its brief history, and been named in the world’s top 10 ‘hottest companies’ in bioenergy and renewable chemicals by industry leaders and prominent scientists.
Dr Sean Simpson is the chief scientific officer and was co-founder, in 2005, of LanzaTech, which uses microbes to convert waste gases into fuels and valuable chemicals.
He is on the verge of breakthrough in sustainable fuels – with bit of biotech wizardry that’s little like brewing beer. The company is in the final stages of commercialising microbe that ferments ethanol out of the carbon monoxide from steel mills, and is working on other products including jet fuel.
LanzaTech is collaborating with steel mill, refinery and waste disposal operators in China, India, South Korea and Malaysia, and with the energy, defence and aviation industries in the US. Investors include global cleantech guru Vinod Khosla and The Warehouse founder Sir Stephen Tindall.
The company is readying to commercialise other microbes that make the chemical building blocks for plastics, paint, rubber, nylon and hydrocarbon fuels.
Not one for resting on his laurels, Simpson is now bent on creating microbe that will eat carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas – turning it into chemical that can be fixed into products like plastics. That quest has the backing of Malaysian oil and gas giant Petronas.
Born in Zambia, Simpson arrived in New Zealand from Japan in 2002. He and LanzaTech co-founder Richard Forster went into business after being laid off by Genesis Research.
By making low-carbon fuels from waste gases instead of plant material, LanzaTech has overcome one of the big challenges of biofuels: they demand crops and land that could produce food, and drive food prices up.
But waste gases are so widespread that they make LanzaTech’s solution cost-effective and viable on global scale. Simpson says the amount of carbon monoxide from the world’s steel mills alone could potentially produce 30 billion gallons of ethanol year.
LanzaTech’s microbes can also produce ethanol and chemicals from sources like oil refineries and chemical plants, and gasified municipal, industrial, agricultural or forestry waste.
It took two years for Simpson to breed his ethanol microbe from delicate organism into something able to handle the inside of an industrial smokestack. He tested it at Bluescope’s Glenbrook steel mill near Auckland, before developing the first fully commercial process with Chinese steel producer Baosteel at its plant near Shanghai. Another project is now underway with steel maker Shougang near Beijing.
LanzaTech is also working with one of the world’s largest steel producers, South Korea’s Posco, and with India’s largest oil refiner, Indian Oil Corporation.
In the jet fuel market, the company is collaborating with the US defence industry, the Federal Aviation Authority, Boeing and Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic – which is winning sustainability plaudits on the strength of its work with LanzaTech. M