Skokie, Ill.-based biotech company LanzaTech Inc., known for developing a novel technology to produce renewable ethanol, is working with a California startup to create a thermoplastic that can be used to make everything from medical devices to food containers.
Over the last 16 years, LanzaTech has developed a process that uses bacteria to turn carbon monoxide gases, such as industrial pollution, into ethanol. Berkeley, Calif.-based Twelve, formerly known as Opus 12 Inc., uses metal catalysts to transform carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide by bubbling it through water.
Now, the two are teaming up to make an FDA-approved polypropylene, said LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren.
Here's how they're doing it: Twelve will transform carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, and LanzaTech will take that carbon monoxide and use its tech to transform it to isopropyl, a chemical compound most commonly found in rubbing alcohol and disinfectants.
A third undisclosed manufacturing partner will use the isopropyl to make the polypropylene, Holmgren said.
The work is partly funded by a $200,000 grant from Impact Squared, a $1.1 million fund launched by Barclays and Unreasonable, a firm that funds companies solving "pressing global problems."
At this stage, the goal of the partnership between LanzaTech and Twelve is to show that PP can be made from CO2 emissions efficiently, Holmgren said.
"The reason that's important is because polypropylene is a major petrochemical," Holmgren said. "If you really believe that everything we use today has to be made from recycled carbon or some type of emission, there's already enough carbon above ground. Why do we need to keep drilling carbon out of the ground?"
The first sector Twelve aims to focus on is medical devices, but Holmgren said the technology could be used to make many other items as well. The work will begin in the next couple of months, and they plan to have PP resin available for manufacturing purposes by the middle of 2022.
"The idea is to show that this works and then do it commercially," Holmgren said.
LanzaTech's primary product is converting CO2 emissions to ethanol, which it first commercialized at a steel mill facility in China. Now with two plants in China and two more planned for Belgium and India, Holmgren said LanzaTech is close to being profitable.
Since 2018, LanzaTech said it has made more than 25 million gallons of ethanol. So far, its work has been funded by nearly $500 million from investors, and to date, the company has found numerous ways to use its ethanol in spinout companies and through a series of partnerships.
Last year, LanzaTech launched LanzaJet, a subsidiary to produce and commercialize sustainable aviation fuel. Led by former United Airlines executive Jimmy Samartzis, LanzaJet opened with the help of $50 million from investors like Canadian energy company Suncor Energy, Japanese investment firm Mitsui and the U.S. Department of Energy.
"Jet fuel is such a big need that we wanted to make a separate company with separate investments so we could scale up," Holmgren said.
Additionally, LanzaJet has partnered with yoga apparel retailer Lululemon to make renewable polyester, as well as cosmetics giant Coty to make clean and safe ethanol for perfume manufacturing.
"We got really good at taking waste to ethanol and are showing you can make everything else," Holmgren said.