Virgin & LanzaTech Partner On Alternative Jet Fuel

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Recently, Sir Richard Branson wrote an article about Virgin Atlantic’s first commercial flight using a blend of jet fuel and industrial waste-gas fuel made by LanzaTech. He was at Gatwick in London to welcome the 747 which flew from Orlando, Florida. LanzaTech says its alternative blend jet fuel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% or more. The company’s CEO, Jennifer Holmgren, answered some questions about it and collaborating with Virgin Atlantic for CleanTechnica.

How did Virgin and LanzaTech strike up a partnership?

After their 2008 test flight, Virgin Atlantic teams went in pursuit of a sustainably robust, commercially viable, low-carbon jet fuel solution. After reviewing a wide variety of early-stage options, in 2011, they partnered with LanzaTech. Virgin Atlantic says it chose LanzaTech because of sustainability and commercial viability. They loved LanzaTech’s novel, waste-gas, carbon capture and utilization (CCU) approach.

What role did or does Boeing play?

Boeing has been an industry leader in helping to develop sustainable aviation fuels by working with stakeholders and providing technical expertise. Boeing pointed VAA to LanzaTech in the early days and the three companies have been collaborating since 2011 to achieve this important millstone.

You recycle waste industrial gases to make ethanol, what is the process you use?

We use a process of gas fermentation. Much like making beer through traditional fermentation, LanzaTech’s special microbe ferments gases (in this case waste emissions from a steel mill) to make ethanol.

Which gases do you recycle, and where do you source them?

By using LanzaTech’s gas fermentation process, feedstocks from all sorts of wastes around the world can be used to make a variety of low carbon products, including jet fuel. Potential feedstocks include industrial gases, biomass wastes and residues, and unsorted, un-recyclable municipal solid waste. The gases are a blend of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

How do you collect the gases and where do you convert them to ethanol?

In the case of industrial off gases, these are piped straight into a reactor where they are fermented by our proprietary bacteria. In cases where biomass residues are used, these are gasified (superheated to a synthesis  gas) and then fed into the reactor and fermented.

Are the waste gases free to you, or do you pay a fee?

The cost of the feedstocks we use is built into the economics of our process. It is worth mentioning that we operate a licensing model and so customers license our gas fermentation technology and then work with feedstock providers or they will be using their own feedstock (in the case of a steel mill licensing the technology to use their own gases).

How scalable is your gases-to-ethanol conversion process?

Very! It is currently operating at commercial scale in China, using steel mill emissions. We have secured full or part-funding for five commercial ethanol plants using a variety of waste feedstocks, in Belgium, the US, India, and South Africa.  The China commercial plant started operations on May 3rd 2018. A facility in Belgium, with ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company, is set to be operational from 2020.

Using steel as an example, LanzaTech estimates they could use their technology in about 65% of the steel facilities worldwide.  The waste carbon monoxide produced from these facilities would be enough to produce approximately 30 billion gallons of ethanol per year, which could be converted into 15 billion gallons of jet fuel.

How long does it take to make some meaningful quantity of ethanol like 100 gallons, or whatever the usable output is?

Ethanol production is very fast in terms of when a facility is up and running. The fermentation process is continuous. From start up of a unit to commercial quantities of ethanol being produced, we are taking a matter of days.

How do you interest steel mills to work with you in order to collect the waste gases?

LanzaTech offers an alternative to the current production methods by re-using the waste product that would otherwise be flared or used less efficiently for power production.  We are recycling, to get twice the use of the carbon that we would otherwise normally get. Many steel mills are interested in this more efficient approach as they bring circular economy principals into their supply chain.

One of the figures in your press release states you might be able to produce up to 125 million gallons of sustainable fuel per year by 2025, and with this amount Virgin could power all its outbound flights from the UK. Is your fuel cost-competitive with standard jet fuel, or will it be?

We see our fuel as being cost competitive with oil at $80/barrel, however, as a new technology today, we still need to get down the cost curve and for that we need to ensure a level playing field for all sustainable alternative fuels. Today there are many existing sustainable fuel incentive schemes, but not all fuels are eligible for these incentives because they may not use specified feedstocks. We believe that we need all sustainable solutions to contribute and that such incentive schemes will benefit by focusing on overall sustainability and GHG reduction rather than specific feedstocks.

Another figure is saving nearly 1 million tonnes of life-cycle carbon, would that be per year?


How did you test the fuel to make sure it is viable and safe before the first commercial flight?

This fuel has been rigorously tested by ASTM to ensure it meets the standards of jet fuel. In 2018, it achieved ASTM qualification for ethanol-derived alcohol to jet (ATJ) fuel to be used on commercial flights, following many years of careful testing and review by technical specialists from airframe and engine manufacturers among others.  In this way, the fuel is classed as performing as well as – or better than – regular fossil jet fuel on a whole range of performance and safety metrics.

How many employees do you have currently and are you growing rapidly?

LanzaTech has 140 employees and we see growth in our future especially with focus on jet fuel production!

What is the vision for the company over the next 5-10 years?

We expect to have multiple commercial sites operating globally, using a variety of input gases, including conversion of unsorted, un-recyclable MSW. We expect carbonsmart fuels and chemicals in the supply chain. We expect consumer brands to bring low carbon chemicals and fuels into the supply chain, and brand products as being “below50” or “carbonsmart.”  We expect brands to use this as they would “recycled paper,” fair trade etc…as a certification mark to show their commitment to reducing carbon.

Image Credit: Mark Harkin, Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0
The plane shown here is not the actual one used in the flight.

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Jake Richardson

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