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Aviation carbon recycling biofuel climate change

Published on June 2nd, 2016 | by Tina Casey


Recycling Carbon To Get A 747 Off The Ground (CT Exclusive Interview)

June 2nd, 2016 by  

The world will have to wait for gigantic electric aircraft to take off, but air travel is still heading rapidly for a low carbon future. That’s our takeaway from an interview with Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of the carbon recycling company LanzaTech.

LanzaTech is part of a new global initiative called below50, which launched earlier this week as a key outcome of the Low Carbon Partnerships event in San Francisco. The idea behind below50 is to pool private sector resources to push the global transportation market for biofuels and other low-carbon, sustainable alternatives to fossils.

carbon recycling biofuel climate change

How Carbon Recycling Can Get A 747 Off The Ground

Biofuel companies have been zeroing in on aviation as the low-hanging fruit of the alternative fuel world, and the airline industry is becoming an eager customer.

The attraction is the near-term availability of aviation biofuel, which can be used without modifying the existing aviation fuel infrastructure. Biofuel and other drop-in low-carbon liquid fuels provide the airline industry with a low cost way to cut its carbon rather than waiting around for large scale electric aircraft to emerge as an alternative.

Virgin was among the first to venture into the aviation biofuel field, as was the US Department of Defense, among other airlines and shipping companies.

If you think of biofuel as a form of carbon recycling, then yes, carbon recycling can get a 747 off the ground.

LanzaTech And Carbon Recycling

When it comes to carbon recycling, LanzaTech is among a handful of innovators that have taken biofuel (using that term loosely) to the next level by cutting out the middleman, aka biomass. The company has developed a proprietary microbe that lives on the waste gas from steel mills and other industrial operations, and converts that into various carbon products.

One focus of LanzaTech is a bug that spits out ethanol from recycled carbon. Additional potential products include various other fuels and chemicals, including a butadiene precursor that could lead to the manufacture of nylon and synthetic rubber.

In an exclusive interview with CleanTechnica, Dr. Holmgren fleshed out the case for recycling carbon.

She made a compelling argument for the need to act now, using whatever tools are at hand, rather than promoting one single solution for the global carbon problem. In her view, the private sector is primed to adopt low carbon fuels:

We all know what we need to do. We need to reduce the carbon intensity of everything we do. It’s that simple.

Every time you recycle a carbon molecule, that’s a fossil molecule that stays in the ground.


There is momentum and interest in low carbon products. I am very impressed with how important industry was at COP21. A lot of voices were calling for carbon reduction. Ten years ago, it would have just been governments.

I know it takes a long time to get technology there. What worries me is the dialog and the rhetoric. We have a carbon intensity problem now. We need many solutions to have a seat at the table. Now is not the time to compete, now is the time to work together.

How To Do Low-Carbon Transportation Fuel Right

Holmgren also sounded a cautionary note on repeating the mistakes of the past when accelerating the future growth of the low carbon fuel sector.

“You go forward into the abyss,” she said, referring to unintended consequences, namely, the destruction of forests and farmlands that has accompanied large scale biomass operations. “You have to open your mind. You can never ask questions if you only have one solution in your back pocket.”

To Holmgren, the sustainable growth of the low-carbon fuel sector has to take a regional and geographic approach that embraces multiple solutions

We’ll pause here for a US taxpayer group hug, because the Obama Administration has adopted just such a regional approach for developing sustainable transportation fuel in the US.

Among its many low-carbon fuel projects, the US Energy Department has been a big fan of LanzaTech. The agency is a long term supporter of LanzaTech, pairing the company with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to convert alcohols from biomass into renewable aviation fuel.

Transportation Market Needs Biofuel And EVs, Too

Electric vehicles tend to grab a lot of headlines compared to low-carbon fuel. That’s partly because the auto industry already has a baked-in publicity advantage, most recently perfected by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors.

That puts LanzaTech and other low-carbon fuel innovators at a disadvantage in terms of public perception, which has been coming down on the side of battery EVs as the dominant force in future transportation (add your two cents in the comment thread if you have another take on that).

In terms of public policy, though, Holmgren foresees that the market for liquid transportation fuels — aviation fuel in particular — will be supported.

You need jet fuel in the value chain. A refinery produces multiple products… Electric vehicles cannot make refineries economical. You need a vibrant fuel and chemical sector.

Getting a sustainable feedstock to a refinery is just step one. Step two is to ensure that there are markets for the multiplicity of products that a refinery produces. Otherwise, it can’t afford to stay open.

In other words, vehicle electrification solves a huge problem by zeroing out tailpipe emissions. However, EVs do not contribute to the economical production of sustainably sourced chemicals, and that leaves a void in the overall low-carbon economy of the future.

If you have an idea about that, drop a note in the comment thread.

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Image (screenshot): via LanzaTech. 


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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