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Tina Casey headshot

Cherry Tree Inspiration Wins Start-Up $4 Million Energy Grant

By Tina Casey

The cherry tree is a standout example of eco-effective manufacturing in nature, so it's little wonder that the company LanzaTech has adopted it as a symbol for its carbon capture technology. LanzaTech has developed a system for harnessing the power of living organisms to convert waste gas into useful fuels, a technology that could play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources as well as landfills, coal mines, and gas and oil drilling sites.

To help accelerate the development of LanzaTech's system into new fields, the U.S. Department of Energy has just awarded the company a $4 million grant under the new REMOTE (Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy) initiative.

Consider the cherry tree

LanzaTech illustrates its company philosophy with a quote from Michael Braungart's 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things:
A cherry tree produces thousands of blossoms which create fruit for birds, humans and other animals in an effort to grow one tree. The blossoms and fruit that fall to the ground aren't waste, they are food for other systems and processes that nourish the tree and soil. It's a question of design and eco-effectiveness, a question we should be addressing in our approach to life and manufacturing.

A recent partnership with Virgin Atlantic neatly sums up LanzaTech's goal of developing fuels without compromising other resources, namely food and land. The company's technology consists of a process for extracting carbon monoxide from the waste gas emitted during steel production, and exposing it to a brew of proprietary microbes.

The microbes digest the carbon monoxide and produce a number of fuels and petrochemical equivalents, including pure ethanol and 2,3 Butandiol (a precursor for making plastics, among other things).

In the Virgin partnership, LanzaTech is developing a jet fuel from steel mill waste gas. The two companies expect to bring it to commercial use in 2014.

What is REMOTE?

REMOTE comes under the Energy Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E was created in 2007 and modeled on the Department of Defense's long-running Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Both agencies enable the development of transformational technologies that are too high-risk to attract sufficient private sector investment.

The aim of REMOTE is to develop new technologies that make it cost-effective to capture methane emissions from sites where the powerful greenhouse gas is flared off as waste, or simply escapes to the atmosphere.

One caveat: although REMOTE's portfolio of projects could lead to a significant improvement in greenhouse gas management in the drilling and mining industries, it could also enable drilling (fracking comes to mind) and mining in far-flung areas that were previously considered uneconomical for such purposes.

LanzaTech's REMOTE project

For its $4 million ARPA-E project, LanzaTech has partnered with the City College of New York, Louisiana State University, and Michigan Technological University.

The goal is to use LazaTech's core technology as a platform for developing high efficiency, small scale, transportable bioreactors that could be placed at remote oil wells and other far-flung locations including coal mines and landfills.

The bioreactors would enable the capture of valuable fuel and chemical products from methane emissions, which would otherwise not be worth capturing because they occur in relatively small volumes.

In addition to fossil fuel and landfill operations, LanzaTech and its partners will also investigate the potential for applying the gas fermentation technology to a broader range of industries.

[Image: Cherry tree by toolmantim]

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Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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