By now, we should all be well aware that we have a carbon problem. Our society is utterly dependent on fossil fuels to drive our supply chains - to power our vehicles, make everyday products, and grow our food. The problem is, extracting our fuel from the earth and the subsequent combustion of those fuels to power our lives has caused a serious problem: too many heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The abundance of these gases is ultimately driving up the temperature on Earth and proving to have devastating impacts to all life.
But, what if we could somehow recycle all of that carbon waste and use it to make stuff? That’s the vision that 2018 Keeling Curve Prize Laureate, LanzaTech, set out to make a reality. We interviewed Freya Burton, Chief Sustainability and People Officer at LanzaTech, to learn more about how the organization has progressed since winning our prize.
What if we could somehow recycle all of that carbon waste and use it to make stuff? That’s the vision that 2018 Keeling Curve Prize Laureate, LanzaTech, set out to make a reality.
A carbon recycling company
LanzaTech is rethinking how humans make things and considering how we can prevent further climate damage. The company employs the process of fermentation (the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms) to make ethanol, or alcohol, from carbon waste. You’ve probably heard of the process of fermentation to make bread or beer; where yeast breaks down sugar to produce alcohol. Instead of using sugar, LanzaTech takes pollution, ferments it with their microbe and makes ethanol. Yes, you read that right - they’re turning pollution into alcohol.
How does LanzaTech then use that ethanol to make products for our daily lives? Ethanol is an extremely versatile chemical that can be employed in a variety of pathways. Burton explains, “We can blend ethanol with petroleum, reducing the need for fossil fuels in the tank of your car - powering your road transport vehicles. We’ve converted some of our ethanol into hand sanitizer, disinfectants, household cleaners, laundry detergent, and even packaging. You can use ethanol to make perfume. We can convert ethanol into sustainable jet fuel - and we’ve already flown two international flights on aviation fuel made from steel mill emissions!”
We need to rethink carbon
Ethanol can also be converted into fibers to create clothing. “Recently, we announced that we’re working with lululemon to produce a fabric made from recycled carbon.”
Parra explains further, “In some states, tariff-on-bill programs have been adopted. If you are a resident and you want to upgrade your electric appliances or upgrade your home and you don’t have the money to cover the upfront payment, the utility would invest in that equipment. The utility would then recover its total cost via a tariff on the electricity bill.”
LanzaTech is reimagining the old system of production that is contingent on the need to extract fossil fuel from the Earth. Their goal is to reenvision carbon’s linear path that ultimately produces greenhouse gases that hang around in our atmosphere. Instead, LanzaTech’s core focus is to create a circular, cyclical path in which carbon waste can be converted into useful products.
Burton states. “We’re trying to disrupt the fossil supply chain and disrupt the dependency on fossil fuels for fibers, food, and all the things in our daily lives - not just fuel.”
LanzaTech’s carbon recycling process stands to impact individuals and the world at large. “At the individual level, we’re giving you a choice. You can now go to a store and just like you might choose organic milk or fair-trade coffee - you can choose ‘carbon-smart’ products. Or, when you’re buying an airline ticket, you could choose to fly with recycled carbon fuel.” explains Burton. Similar to how the organics market has evolved to be mainstream, Burton hopes “carbon-smart” purchasing will start to become more commonplace, as individuals take on a moral responsibility to invest in a sustainable future and brand owners take note, bringing recycled carbon into their supply chains.
Burton states, “As far as the world, we’ve run out of time - climate change is here. The snow is melting, the fires are here, life as we know it is changing.” LanzaTech, recognizing the urgency climate change poses to human life, is progressing towards a circular carbon economy and pioneering an entirely new industry. Burton says, “We’re doing it, we’re making stuff. Our site in China has reduced a steel mill’s emissions by about 150,000 tons of CO2. It’s real. It’s small from a planetary perspective, but it’s real. We’re reducing carbon.”
LanzaTech applied for the Keeling Curve Prize in 2018 with a vision to meet the increasing global demand for affordable, low-carbon fuels and sustainably produced chemicals that did not threaten food security or land use.
“In our submission, we talked about our vision for a future where you could make stuff from waste. At the time, we hadn’t started our commercial plant and we certainly hadn’t made any products. We said - if we win the prize, we’re going to produce some items to show the world that it’s possible,” explains Burton.
Since winning the prize three years ago, LanzaTech has produced shampoo prototype bottles with L’Oréal, made products with Unilever, and partnered with lululemon to make clothing from their products. The Keeling Curve Prize propelled LanzaTech’s vision to reality.
The impact of the Keeling Curve Prize
“In our submission, we talked about our vision for a future where you could make stuff from waste. At the time, we hadn’t started our commercial plant and we certainly hadn’t made any products. We said - if we win the prize, we’re going to produce some items to show the world that it’s possible.”
— Freya Burton, Chief Sustainability and People Officer at LanzaTech
Looking to the future
Burton says, “We want people to know that they have a choice when they buy things. We want people, businesses, and governments to choose where their carbon comes from.” LanzaTech’s journey from 2018 to now has been exceedingly impressive and successful, as they’ve continued to lay the groundwork for carbon recycling in global supply chains.
As far as what’s next, Burton explained that the company is setting its eyes on direct air capture and carbon sequestration from the atmosphere. “Today we make stuff from the pollution that exists. But tomorrow, we’ll make stuff from direct air capture. That’s the real future of LanzaTech - what we’re doing today is positioning us to take advantage of those technologies in the future.”
When asked what advice Burton could give to other innovators working to solve the climate crisis, Burton shared, “Don’t give up. We have always set for ourselves impossible tasks. We have always had people telling us what we’re trying to do is impossible. You have to keep trying, you have to keep failing, and you have to move on quickly - to help the Earth move forward.”