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This biotech startup uses hungry microbes to transform carbon emissions into clean jet fuel

This biotech startup uses hungry microbes to transform carbon emissions into clean jet fuel
[Photo illustration: Fast Company]





Last spring, a steel mill in a city east of Beijing began transforming carbon emissions into fuel, thanks to a first-of-its-kind bioreactor filled with microbes that eat waste gases and produce ethanol—as many as 16 million gallons a year at the mill. The six-year-old Chicago-area biotech company LanzaTech designed the system, which can be used at a variety of industrial sites, in an effort “to show the world that carbon reuse is feasible, possible, and can make economic sense,” says CEO Jennifer Holmgren. The company is now scaling further. Last summer, LanzaTech broke ground on a bioreactor at a Belgian mill owned by Arcelor-Mittal, the world’s largest steel producer, which hopes to embed the technology at its sites around the globe to reduce its carbon footprint. LanzaTech systems are also being built in India, South Africa, and in two U.S. locations. A pilot program in Japan is even producing ethanol from gasified garbage. Lanza­Tech’s ethanol can be used to create jet fuel (in October, a Lanza­Tech fuel blend powered a Virgin Atlantic plane across the Atlantic), as well as a petroleum substitute in the plastics, rubber, and synthetic fibers found in innumerable consumer products. The company’s industrial partners can license the technology and sell the fuel themselves. Holmgren estimates that if LanzaTech bioreactors were in place at the world’s largest steelworks—accounting for roughly 65% of all production—it would be the equivalent of taking 55 million cars off the road. “We [can] unleash new ideas, technologies, and investment that will quickly reduce our dependence on fresh fossils,” she says. “This is not science fiction. It’s happening.”

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