Could magic microbe harness steel plant emissions to make biofuel?

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New Zealand biofuel firm Lanzatech says proprietary microbe uses steel factory emissions to help produce ethanol

New Zealand biofuel company LanzaTech says it has developed a microbe that can convert waste gases from steel mills into high-octane ethanol.

LanzaTech claims to be the first company to work with steel mills to develop a waste gas-to-ethanol process capable of capturing the carbon monoxide that is typically released by the industry.

The LanzaTech process captures steel mill waste gases and removes particulates, nitrogen and oxygen before sending the resulting gasses to a bioreactor. The carbon component of the gas is then fermented by the company’s proprietary microbes to produce ethanol.

The fermentation process is fuelled by a synthetic gas that can be produced from a wide range of biomass resources, including municipal rubbish, waste wood and organic industrial waste – such as tyres. Gasification is used to break down the chemical bonds in the biomass, making up to 80 per cent of the energy available for fermentation.

LanzaTech last year launched a pilot facility at a New Zealand Steel plant near the city of Auckland. The biofuel company says trials have been successful, yielding ethanol produced at a low cost.

It eventually aims to license its technology to firms in the industrial bio-commodities market. LanzaTech’s waste gas-to-ethanol process has gained attention from companies in China and the US, according to company co-founder Sean Simpson.

He estimated that the world’s steel mills generate enough carbon monoxide emissions to produce 50 billion gallons of ethanol annually. The process would save the gas from entering the atmosphere at a rate of half a tonne for each tonne of steel produced, Simpson added.

Last month, LanzaTech was named Green Technology Innovator of the Year at the Frost and Sullivan Asia Pacific Industrial Technologies Awards. Presented by global consultancy Frost and Sullivan, the event is supported by hi-tech and industrial automation industry bodies in Singapore.

LanzaTech has financial backing from Khosla Ventures, which in 2007 led its first-round funding of US$3.5m.

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