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

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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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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3148 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

12 thoughts on “Recycling Carbon To Get A 747 Off The Ground (CT Exclusive Interview)

  • The disappearance of gasoline and heating oil demand will cut the profit margin on refineries and force them to raise the cost of other petrochemicals and the cost of jet fuel. *This is a good thing* as it will reduce demand for these.

    Steel mills are major CO2 emitters, so anything which captures carbon from them is good, of course.

    • Fossil fuels are all heading straight over the cliff.

      Your belief that EV’s will have a major impact is however not the case.

      The ICE vehicles and other ICE applications represents a huge investment and most owners do not have a relevant alternative and/or the relevant economy to pay to swap their current ICE for a battery driven alternative.

      The number of gigafactories that has to be built run for decades to achieve the situation you speculate about is very big. Just for cars we are talking 200 gigafactories running at full throttle for two decades.

      The big problem for fossil fuel is that they are not up against just EV’s. There is a nastier beast that is approaching fast because electricity prices drop so fast that the price point where excess CO2 and excess electricity can produce competitive Synfuels is nearing.

      Ps. You can produce emission free steel and the development of the technology is underway in Sweden. Just google “co2 emission free ironmaking – stab” I think it is very likely that this technology will outcompete coal based iron production because the cost of electricity will half over the next few years.

      • ” Just for cars we are talking 200 gigafactories running at full throttle for two decades”

        We now make engines and transmissions for 90 million ICEVs each year. We can make batteries and electric motors.

        ” where excess CO2 and excess electricity can produce competitive Synfuels is nearing”

        EVs will be very glad to suck up any “excess” electricity. Synfuel plants would not get ‘first refusal rights’. Synfuel plants would end up paying average industrial prices along with all other factories.

        There’s pretty much a zero chance that it would be come as cheap to drive with synfuel as electricity. Internal combustion engines are simply too inefficient.

        Even if you could turn 1 kWh of electricity into 1 kWh of synfuel you’d toss out 70% to 80% as waste heat. With EVs you lose only 20% (10% charging the battery and 10% in drivetrain losses). Not even counting the cost of synfuel infrastructure (plants, transportation and distribution) the cost of driving with a liquid fuel would be 4x greater.

        • I think you know my position.

          There is no infrastructural cost associated with introducing Synfuels at all. Quite to the contrary you get to keep some of the antiquated fossil fuel infrastructure (ICE engines, tank stations, distribution systems) in operation and avoid decommissioning it at all a huge cost.

          For NG Synfuels the entire distribution system is in place and pilot plants are being constructed.

          Synfuel production is a “mining operation” where you are 100% certain that the mined materials are in unlimited supply. And contrary to your often repeated beliefs Synfuel plants are not expensive to build. I supplied you with a complete spreadsheet made by a renowned Australian scientist who based his numbers largely on public funded US researchers findings, which in turn was based upon off the shelf component prices. Since then there has been a lot of development that has lowered the cost.

          Even your arbitrary demand of a below $2/gallon price to be competitive with EV’s is within reach.

  • Biofuel is the wrong way to go, we already have problems with rainforests being destroyed for palm oil and other crops and livestock. Our land use on the planet is already way too high as a species, we need to be cutting back, not growing plants just so we can burn them.

    • MrL, reread the article. You will notice that they want to remove the “biomass” from biofuel. They are not grow a new plant on land. They are are looking at scrubbing smoke stack with microbes.

  • Use carbon twice, cut emissions in half.

  • Priorities.

    Aviation does become CO2 neutral but does not reduce the GHG problem to zero because there is a consequence when you emit vapor in he altitude commercial airlines commute in.

    There are much more potent companies with much more success and way bigger pockets and much bigger market traction and especially with more benign technology that apparently fly under the Cleantechnica radar.

    Since Cleantechnica choose not to cover the advances in biofuel then as a service to perhaps interested readers I can inform that Novozymes (more than 60% global marketshare in biofuel) has teamed up with KU that has made a sensational breakthrough in biomass by discovering reverse photosynthesis that breaks down complex biomass into sugars ready for biofuels and anything else in the petrochemical industry. The process rus with no added energy apart from the sun and a factor 100 faster than hitherto achieved.

    The kind of biomass that Novozymes zoom in on will otherwise rut and ooze methane so the net GHG emission is far bigger than just the transformation of biomass into fuel.

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