In a milestone for the low-carbon fuel project, LanzaTech has produced 1,500 gallons of jet fuel from waste industrial gases from steel mills via a fermentation process for Virgin Atlantic. Virgin Atlantic and LanzaTech have been working together on the project since 2011. HSBC joined the partnership in 2014.
The “Lanzanol” was produced in China at the RSB (Roundtable of Sustainable Biomaterials) certified Shougang demonstration facility. The innovative alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) process was developed in collaboration with Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) with support from the US Department of Energy (DOE) and with the help of funding from HSBC.
LanzaTech and Virgin Atlantic are now set to continue to work with Boeing and industry colleagues to complete the additional testing aircraft and engine manufacturers require before approving the fuel for first use in a commercial aircraft. Assuming all initial approvals are achieved, the innovative LanzaTech jet fuel could be used in a first of its kind proving flight in 2017.
Following a successful proving flight, the data collected will enable the partnership to seek approval to use the fuel on routine commercial flights. This would also help pave the way for LanzaTech to fund and build their first commercial jet fuel plant to supply fuel to Virgin Atlantic and other airlines. As a UK-based partnership, it is hoped the first LanzaTech jet fuel plant would be based in the UK.
The process. Steel production produces waste carbon monoxide (CO) gas, which is frequently flared (burnt off) to the atmosphere as greenhouse gas CO2 (or sometimes used less efficiently for other purposes).
LanzaTech captures the waste gas from refineries and manufacturing plants and feeds the CO-rich gas to microbes that consume the gas and produce ethanol. During the second stage of the process, the ethanol is run through a PNNL-developed catalyst that converts ethanol to jet fuel by removing the oxygen and combining hydrocarbons, a process known as dehydration-oligomerization.
The catalyst first removes water from the ethanol (dehydration), leaving behind ethylene. The small ethylene hydrocarbons are then combined (oligomerization) to form hydrocarbon chains large enough for jet fuel without forming aromatics that lead to sooting when burned. The fuel meets all the specifications required for use in commercial aviation
Each gallon of ethanol is converted to produce ½gallon of aviation fuel. The process could be used to capture and recycle around ⅓ of the carbon that steel facilities would otherwise release into the atmosphere.
Worldwide, around 1.7 billion metric tonnes of steel are produced every year; LanzaTech estimates that its process could be retrofitted to 65% of the world’s steel mills. This offers the potential to produce 30 billion gallons of ethanol worldwide, for around 15 billion gallons of jet fuel p.a.
This would represent just under 19% of all aviation fuel currently used worldwide p.a. (80 billion gallon total world aviation fuel use).
We can now truly imagine a world where a steel mill can not only produce the steel for the components of the plane but also recycle its gases to produce the fuel that powers the aircraft. This program illustrates that such breakthroughs are only possible through collaboration. In this case, it is governments (US DOE, FAA, DARPA), laboratories (PNNL, AFRL, SWRI, MTU, UDRI), NGOs (RSB) and industry (Virgin, HSBC, Boeing, Shougang, Airlines for America) coming together to disrupt our current global carbon trajectory. We look forward to working with colleagues past, present and future to make this pioneering new fuel a commercial reality.—Dr Jennifer Holmgren, Chief Executive of LanzaTech