With its novel CO2 emissions capture technology already proven successful in the fashion world, LanzaTech says the future will run on a circular carbon economy.
Sustainable materials have come to a wide range of brands looking to reduce their impact on the climate. And they are certainly no stranger to fast fashion giant Zara, which has released a number of collections made from organic and eco textiles. But the brand’s most notable shift to sustainable materials is as one of the first brands to use fabric made by the Illinois-based firm LanzaTech, which turns CO2 emissions into textiles.
“It’s like making beer,” LanzaTech’s CEO Jennifer Holmgren tells Ethos via email. And she should know. Holmgren holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s co-authored 50 U.S. patents and more than 30 scientific publications. In 2003, she was the first woman awarded the Malcolm E. Pruitt Award from the Council for Chemical Research; a roster of awards and recognitions have followed. Prior to LanzaTech, she was VP and General Manager of the Renewable Energy and Chemicals business unit at UOP LLC, a Honeywell Company. Under her leadership, LanzaTech won recognition from the EPA in 2015, receiving the Presidential Green Chemistry Award. She earned the number one spot on the list of 100 most influential leaders in the Bioeconomy by Biofuels Digest for 2016-2017.
But despite Holmgren’s qualifications, she can explain the company’s technology to anyone, even those without a chemistry degree.
“The carbon recycling technology used by LanzaTech is like retrofitting a brewery on to an emission source like a steel mill or landfill site, but instead of using sugars and yeast to make beer, pollution is converted by bacteria to ethanol. This ethanol is then converted into ethylene and then monoethylene glycol (MEG) which is an ingredient in PET yarn used to make textiles,” she says.
If it sounds a little bit like the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale Rumplestiltskin where a mythical creature helps a young maiden by spinning straw into gold, it’s not far off. It is, quite literally, turning polluted air into a sustainable, viable material that holds greater value in its new form. And in the case of converting pollution, it’s not only creating something of value, it’s also removing something that’s causing a lot of problems.
CO2 emissions are the leading source of climate change; whether from burning fossil fuels, livestock emissions, fertilizers or other sources, emissions trap heat into the atmosphere. And that’s warming the planet, contributing to rising sea levels, and stressing carbon sinks including rainforests and oceans. This crisis has been at the forefront of LanzaTech’s goal since day one.
It all started back in 2005, when LanzaTech’s founders Sean Simpson and Richard Forster came across a microbe and its capabilities after scouring many academic papers. However, Holmgren says the first strain that LanzaTech ordered was essentially useless.
“It required expensive nutrients and minerals to survive and could only convert clean carbon monoxide gases into ethanol,” she says. “Since carbon emissions from factories are far from clean, LanzaTech had to find another way to make the bacteria work. This is what the company has developed and scaled over the last 17 years.”
To date, LanzaTech’s first commercial scale gas fermentation plant has produced more than 20 million gallons of ethanol—the equivalent of keeping more than 120,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.
The tech isn’t emissions-specific, according to Holmgren. Carbon emissions can come from a variety of sources such as industrial off-gases, agricultural residues, plastic waste, and municipal solid wastes, she says.
The company’s tech was most recently highlighted as the source material used in a limited-edition collection of Zara holiday dresses last December. It was also used by athletic wear brand Lululemon in a collection of yoga pants last summer—the first fashion items to contain the company’s proprietary material.
For this most recent Zara project, Holmgren says the carbon emissions were captured from industrial off-gases from a steel mill, “that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere.”
According to Holmgren, what LanzaTech is doing is more commonly known as carbon capture. But the company takes it a step further. “Where most people see this only as pollution, we see opportunity to capture the carbon and create something useful,” she says.
The company is also behind a new perfume from global beauty brand Coty. It’s using LanzaTech’s carbon capture ethanol and plans to integrate it across most of its fragrances by next year. It’s expecting hit the market with its first fragrances later this year.
The carbon capture technology replaces the company’s corn-based ethanol that’s resource-intensive. Coty says the shift made possible by LanzaTech helps to reduce its impact on biodiversity and reduce its emissions. LanzaTech’s ethanol’s water usage is nearly zero and requires next to no land to produce.
Coty produces fragrances for luxury brands including Burberry and Gucci, as well as budget brands including Cover Girl and Sally Hansen.
A carbon-based economy
For Holmgren and LanzaTech, there’s a seemingly endless supply of resources here. “Using all wastes (industrial gases, ag residues, trash etc) we could make around 500 billion gallons of ethanol globally, around 35 percent of transport fuel or equivalent of around 700 million cars off road each year.” Holmgren says that’s the equivalent of removing around 7 percent of global CO2 emissions right from thin air.
LanzaTech’s unique microbial gas fermentation process is creating a sustainable pathway to produce platform chemicals “that serve as building blocks to products that have become indispensable in our lives,” Holmgren says. These include rubber, plastics, synthetic fibers, and fuels.” And it’s all done without adversely affecting food or land security, she says.
For Holmgren and LanzaTech, the carbon capture technology is a solution to so many of our current challenges.
“Soon there will be a future where there is no such thing as waste emissions, only feedstocks, that can be repurposed in a circular carbon economy,” she says.
“In other words, everything we need will come from recycled carbon. For example, today you can purchase Unilever laundry pods made from carbon emissions or hand soap or window cleaner. You can buy clothing and bottles made from PET made from recycled emissions! We have already experienced planes flying on sustainable fuels made from industrial emissions, including Virgin Atlantic. Next year, fragrances will be available through Coty, made from captured carbon.”
Holmgren says that the tech will touch every part of lives, “and whether it be carbon emissions, or whether it be solid carbon, we imagine a future where we’re refining CO2 to make the products we need in our daily lives. To do that, it takes partnerships with industry and governments, but people, as the consumers of these goods, can demand that the products they purchase are carbon smart,” she says.
“LanzaTech sees a future in which our everyday products are all made from recycled carbon,” Holmgren says. She says the company is committed to playing a big part in the reduction of global CO2 emissions and creating a “new carbon economy” where there is no such thing as “single use carbon.”