A new route to the production of monoethylene glycol, a key monomer in the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), has been discovered, Illinois-based biotech company LanzaTech has announced. The method builds on the carbon capture technology previously developed by the company. That technology is based on a microbial gas fermentation process that initially could convert carbon monoxide into ethanol, but today provides a sustainable pathway to produce a range of platform chemicals. Gas streams from multiple sources are used, including industrial off-gases from steel and alloy mills; petroleum refineries, petrochemical complexes and gas processing facilities; syngas generated from municipal solid waste, organic industrial waste, agricultural waste; and reformed biogas.
To produce MEG, LanzaTech uses carbon emissions from steel mills or gasified waste biomass and a proprietary engineered bacterium to convert carbon emissions directly into MEG through fermentation. This bypasses the need for an ethanol intermediate, and simplifies the MEG supply chain as it eliminates the multiple processing steps required to convert ethanol into ethylene, then ethylene oxide and then to MEG.
The direct production of MEG was proven at laboratory scale and the presence of MEG was confirmed by two external laboratories.
The discovery is a breakthrough in the production of sustainable PET that has vast potential to reduce the overall environmental impact of the process, said Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech.
“This is a technological breakthrough which could have significant impact, with applications in multiple sectors, including packaging and textiles!”
As there is no organism in nature known to produce MEG, the company used synthetic biology and AI tools to develop the new pathway. By combining and prototyping various sets of enzymes identified from different sources in novel ways, LanzaTech has successfully reprogrammed its ethanol-producing bacteria to fix and channel carbon into MEG. The work shows for the first time that it is possible for a bacterium to directly produce MEG from gas. LanzaTech anticipates that when scaled successfully after a multiyear development phase, the direct production process will lead to PET bottles and PET fibres with a reduced environmental impact.
LanzaTech is partnering with leading companies, including Danone, to improve the environmental impact of packaging. Given the success of this proof-of-concept phase, LanzaTech, with the support of Danone, plans to continue the scale-up phase of its direct-to-MEG technology.
“This technological collaboration is a key enabler to accelerate the development of this promising technology,” said Pascal Chapon, Danone R&I Advanced Techno Materials Director.
Already, LanzaTech’s products are used in the manufacture of many everyday goods from well-known consumer brands such as Unilever and Lululemon. LanzaTech’s extensive network of customers and partners have committed approximately $800 million in the development of new facilities using LanzaTech’s technology, including two commercially operating plants and seven plants under construction. These new facilities are expected to bring on significant new production capacity in the future. To date, LanzaTech’s plants have produced over 30 million gallons - close to 114 million litres - of ethanol, the equivalent of offsetting 150,000 metric tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Not only does the process convert more than 90 percent of the carbon in CO2 gas streams into ethanol, but the company also recycles over 90 percent of the water it uses and utilises the spent bacterial biomass as a food source for aquaculture.