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By Robert Rapier on Oct 16, 2014 with 28 responses

LanzaTech’s Vulnerability

It’s been years since I looked at this article I wrote on LanzaTech in 2007, but today I was made aware that it’s been linked to from an article in Biofuels Digest: Junk or treasure? Looking at carbon monoxide and LanzaTech. LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren had some comments referencing my previous article that are worth addressing. So let me summarize.

LanzaTech proposes to take waste carbon monoxide from sources like steel manufacturers and ferment that to produce ethanol. Holmgren says that the bacterium they use for their fermentation, Clostridium autoethanogenum, is highly ethanol tolerant. The scientific literature mentions tolerance in the 2% to 4% range, and says that the ethanol production rate slows down beyond 4%. I did see one patent application where they mentioned ethanol via this process in the 5.5% to 6% range.

To my knowledge LanzaTech hasn’t publicly stated the ethanol concentrations they achieve, and this prevents really rigorous calculations. Holmgren states that we needn’t make assumptions since “distillation energy requirements are textbook calculations and easy to calculate.” This only true if we know the ethanol concentration in the solution being distilled. As Holmgren’s own link showed in her response, it takes nearly twice as much steam to distill a 5% ethanol solution as it does a 10% ethanol solution. But without knowing for sure what their ethanol concentration is, we can’t know the energy requirement. So, I gave an example in my previous article to illustrate my point, which is this.

If you have a gaseous feedstock and then ferment it, the resulting solution is mostly water. The presence of a large percentage of water creates a relatively large distillation energy requirement. At a certain point, you expend as much energy removing the water as is contained in the product you are extracting. This situation could be avoided if instead you just did a gas phase reaction to the products instead of fermenting the CO. Why would you do a fermentation instead of a gas phase reaction? In my opinion it’s because one approach qualifies for subsidies and/or mandates and one does not.

Regarding my point that the distillation energy could be prohibitive, Holmgren waves the magic wand of “low value waste heat provides the energy source.” I have seen this waste heat solution invoked plenty of times in a situation with prohibitive energy requirements. It’s not much different than the magic wand of “there’s plenty of waste biomass so our feedstock will be free.” These assumptions are easy to invoke, but challenging to execute.

There are many things that can be said about this “free energy” solution, but one is that you have to reach the boiling point of water to separate ethanol from water in a distillation system. For this, you need either steam to provide the heat or a vacuum distillation column (which isn’t used for basic ethanol/water separations because it is too costly). The reason low value waste heat sources exist is because their temperature is too low to create steam. That’s what makes them “low value.” If they could produce steam, there are more logical places to use it.

There is an academic question of energy efficiency regarding the heat value of the carbon monoxide. Do you have to expend more energy converting and utilizing it than is contained in the carbon monoxide? The answer in the best case will be that the net energy captured from the carbon monoxide is marginal. This is quite a different case from the refinery example Holmgren used, where only about 10% of the contained energy in petroleum is required to refine it into fuel.

Then there is the economic question: If you do have to utilize more energy than is contained in the CO, what was the cost of that energy? And if subsidies weren’t driving the process in that direction, doesn’t it make more sense to do a gas phase reaction and avoid water completely? If you have waste heat, it could be utilized more efficiently in such a process.

So if you want to know LanzaTech’s vulnerability, that’s it. It’s a pretty good bet that the process essentially requires free energy for the economics to work. If I was evaluating LanzaTech as an investment opportunity, I would pay particular attention to the carbon monoxide conversion and selectivity to ethanol, the concentration of ethanol achieved, and the energy requirements for the distillation.

Link to Original Article: LanzaTech’s Vulnerability

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By Plato on October 16, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    Robert: Your comments are valid but so too is the lengthy and considered response by LanzaTech as written up in Biofuels Digest. Surely these issues are not new and LanzaTech executive have obviously had to justify such an approach before. Their response correctly ignores the obvious attack on Vinod Khosla and sticks to the science. However, all scientists can continue their discussions at length but the fundamentals of ” So why do we make paper? Why are trees felled? Why do we treat wastewater” also need to be considered in a real world that is killing itself.
    But my question and implied answer is even simpler……
    How has LanzaTech been able to do four funding rounds (and many government grants) and been able to attract the ‘whos who of business partners and investors without anyone asking these questions before in doing their due diligence? With life science investors as well as big commercials (Mitsui and Seimens) putting in millions of dollars are you really implying that no one has done their due diligence properly?

    • By Robert Rapier on October 17, 2014 at 1:38 am

      “…are you really implying that no one has done their due diligence properly?”

      Well, there is a long list of companies that have partnered with technologies that ultimately did not deliver. Major oil companies. Major automobile companies. And of course government agencies like the EPA.

      I sometimes wonder why they miss things that seem obvious, but I have come to believe that sometimes it’s just because a company convinces them that they have a handle on a problem, but they can’t talk about the solution because it’s proprietary, etc. But this happens a lot. Big companies get fooled. I can give examples of Shell, Weyerhauser, Audi, ConocoPhillips — all have been fooled by technologies with major flaws. But sometimes a confident smooth talker like Mike Cheiky at Cool Planet can convince them that everything is going to be just fine.

      • By Plato on October 17, 2014 at 5:53 am

        A very interesting answer and thank you – this could certainly open a can or worms! I agree that it is amazing that professional due diligence can be a little light in the haste to invest yet most of the established ‘Hot 10′ companies (reference to Biofuels Digest) have expanded boards with science advisory sub-committees and potential investors surely have the same resources available to them. Enough said.

      • By Idiot on February 1, 2015 at 11:07 am

        I would also point out that investments in green technology have value for these companies apart from their ultimate commercial success or failure. In at least one partnership I have first hand knowledge of, the capital invested by the huge industrial partner came out of their MARKETING budget. They threw in $20 million-ish, and then got to brag about how sustainable they were by supporting up and coming green technology. I’m sure they would have been stoked to get a return on that money, but that would have been gravy. What they really bought was a PR boost.

  2. By Jane Smith on October 17, 2014 at 7:33 am

    Also check out this Free energy devices

  3. By Forrest on October 17, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Microbe processing is attractive per low regulation cost and improved environmental waste stream. For example, burning car tires within coal plant vs gasifying for microbe feed stock. Also, microbes process the product into a more valuable commodity, transportation fuel. Economics and ROI the only benchmark of concern for business. Microbes tolerance of alcohol concentration is subject of much research for ability to cut down on distillation costs and increase plant efficiencies. Just lately the research on conditioning water for jump in cell membrane ability to survive higher concentration should be valuable. GMO microbes are surviving 20% alcohol and may become commercial. Mold is gaining acceptance as final and last stage of eliminating waste and increasing feed upon ethanol process plants. Also, some ethanol plants accomplish low grade heat distillation by cogen with power plants. This is hard to coordinate needs of both suppliers, but is expected to gain popularity with increasing energy costs and the invention of energy parks. I’ve noticed CO is the focus of much R&D efforts. The news of ever more capable and lower cost catalyst conversion for example. Excitement for the copper matrix catalyst success and attempt to spur interest within science community to continue the long road to commercial capability. This Laza Tech venture is frustrating as probably good technology present that can be utilized to move the ball, but the investment, promotion, and need to over promise to attract federal and investment dollars will always end poorly. The country has short attention span. We typically fall in love with spur of the moment needs or solutions and then drop like a hot potato if not living up to hype. Very hard to predetermine winner status, but still best to be forthcoming with capability and establish slow burn of capital and benefit from maximum sustainability of venture.

    • By Robert Rapier on October 17, 2014 at 2:58 pm

      “Microbe processing is attractive per low regulation cost and improved environmental waste stream.”

      My point is that the costs are being distorted by subsidies and mandates. Never in a mandate-free environment would you select such a route over a straight gas phase reaction that eliminates the need for all that water.

      • By Forrest on October 17, 2014 at 5:59 pm

        Well, motor fuels are more valuable especially the top tier processes that reclaims CO2 emissions. The incentives per government funding are targeted to that. So, more profitable to go ethanol per advanced fuel mandate. Your analysis per energy return, it would be better to utilize a gas phase reaction to improve quality of fuel and burn directly per gas in turbines? No one as yet has developed a cost effective utilization of CO for fuel. They have catalyst to convert CO2 to CO and close to burnable fuel quality. Some think a catalyst reaction will be eventually forthcoming to crack to ethanol. Algae is interesting for the cause of CO2 and biodiesel. Bio reactors may be standard equipment for all industrial process emitting CO2. I do think eventually CO2 will become a valuable feed stock to energy needs.

        • By TimC on October 20, 2014 at 9:20 am

          Haldor Topsoe’s new “Tigas” process converts syngas (CO + H2) to gasoline. This is not a cracking process.

          Also, Celanese’s TCX enables conversion of syngas to ethanol, via methanol and acetic acid. Celanese recently announced a collaboration with Indian Oil to look at producing ethanol from petcoke at refineries in India.

          Given these emerging catalytic technologies, we shouldn’t be making fuels from corn, sugar cane, or other crops for very much longer. However, we probably will be, for purely political reasons.

          • By Forrest on October 20, 2014 at 11:55 am

            I do read of lab results with promise, but the commercial production, industrial processes, and cost efficiencies all go undeveloped. The catalytic process when accomplished in the lab is often followed with scientist claiming a breakthrough, but just a step in the right direction. That decades of R&D required to make the process commercial. Even the relatively simple chemical process of ethanol brewing; the process is continuously undergoing R&D development. How long has the ICE been with us and the countless hours of engineering development. You’d think we would have maximized the efficiency of the engine long ago. The opposed piston engine probably a better design, yet no company wants to invest the huge chunk of money to make it successful. Especially when the fuel cell is expected to be the disruptive technology. The LanzaTeck approach of feeding microbes per gasification or directly from steel mill emission really not that highly technologically advanced as compared to competing processes. They claim their patented magic microbe is the difference. I don’t believe the critter is that much different.

            • By TimC on October 20, 2014 at 12:55 pm

              These are not just lab scale technologies, Forrest. Haldor Topsoe collaborated with GTI to build a pilot plant and produce 7,700 gallons of high-octane gasoline from wood chips. The pilot plant used an Andritz gasifier to produce syngas from the wood feedstock. The fuel is currently being used in automotive testing:


              And Celanese is building commercial-scale plants in China based on its TCX technology to produce fuel-grade ethanol from coal.

              These are just two examples of new thermo-catalytic processes for producing fuels from syngas. It is unclear to me how LanzaTech, Coskata, or Ineos Bio expect their microbial technologies to compete with faster, cheaper, more robust thermocatalytic processes. But then, none of these will be economical as long as oil is below $150/barrel, so it doesn’t much matter.

            • By Robert Rapier on October 20, 2014 at 2:02 pm

              As I have argued before, provide subsidies that are generous enough, and all kinds of crazy schemes are suddenly “viable.” The fuel that Celanese produces is excluded from the RFS2, so it has a government-mandated disadvantaged.

              I worked for Celanese for 7 years, by the way. My first job out of college.

            • By Forrest on October 20, 2014 at 6:11 pm

              The last step is a catalytic process? “For the last step, the Haldor Topsoe Improved Gasoline Synthesis (TIGAS™) process converted the syngas into gasoline blendstock.” If so it sounds remarkably like either the Kior or Range process. I’m not sure which one, but think it’s one of those. I don’t know how they can describe the product as gasoline. Meaning gasoline is a very complex hydrocarbon brew and it would be foolish to replicate that. They describe the product as blend stock for gasoline. Well, ethanol is a blend stock. Wonder if they are making wood alcohol? The blend stock is high octane so it might be an alcohol. They’re up to pilot stage of proving process. No info on cost projections.
              I remember back some years, the process of making ethanol out of coal. Many articles on the company and process, but then it just dropped off the map. The last info was plant production in China as the article reported. As usual it’s just to hard to manage EPA bureaucracy when a company has it hands full trying to do good work. A lot of good companies head to China for that reason. Much easier to develop new product over seas. Hopefully, the process will work and be cost effective. That would be a good use of coal, hopefully the process doesn’t have a lot of environmental drawbacks. Robert, wonder if the DOE would have funded some of the coal to ethanol process? They’re not afraid of coal, since we have so much. Don’t think it has a chance as a renewable fuel.

            • By Forrest on October 21, 2014 at 7:50 am

              Might have been wise for Kio and Range fuel to contract with Topsoe as the company’s entire business is built around helping customers solve problems with catalytic chemistry. This company has to be top tier technology leader within the field. They were working on transforming coal to fuel as far back as 1984 for European customers. Recent improvements of the process includes combining several steps. The green renewable process much like the coal process. Fluidized bed gasification then conditioning and catalytic processing. Most go the route of producing methanol then transforming. Tigas or green gas product produced with the new combined process. The chemical makeup of the fuel is not commonly known. It may not be an improvement per the normal carcinogen harmful emissions? Best if gasoline additives can lower health concerns. They are building a natural gas to artificial gasoline plant in Europe for a small Soviet break away country. The country has immense NG resources and nothing else. The tigas process cost estimates for commercial production $3.37/g stand alone or $2.70 coprocess with complimentary chemical plant operations. My thoughts, the gasification route an energy expensive way to start the process. The cool bio process should be more capable to improve. Meaning GMO bugs designed to be more alcohol tolerant. The efficiency of biological chemical process requires low energy inputs and does so with low toxicity (food grade). Yeasts, molds, green solvents, enzymes technology just beginning to advance. Distillation not an high energy process with alcohol. Dehydration can be, but improve technology is lowing the cost as well as better utilization of waste heat. The process generates valuable by products such as food, feed, chemicals, biodiesel, high btu biomass, or biogas to name a few. Natural gas conversion to fuel a waste as NG is already wonderful fuel. Coal would greatly benefit from transformation to clean fuel.

            • By Optimist on October 28, 2014 at 4:44 pm

              The beauty of gasoline (indeed “a very complex hydrocarbon brew” is that it avoids some of the thermodynamic energy inputs required to produce anything (such as ethanol) in a pure form.

              The “very complex hydrocarbon brew” is the result of how crude is processed: the current process can be compared to a hammer-mill producing “a very complex [non]hydrocarbon brew” of all sizes and shapes. As long as it burns like gasoline, we call it gasoline.

              Ethanol fermentation is more like carefully cutting that tree that fell over in the backyard into identical 2x4s. After all that work to produce identical 2x4s, it sure seems like a waste to burn it for fuel.

              That’s why ethanol is meant for internal consumption, not vehicle fuel.

    • By Optimist on October 28, 2014 at 4:51 pm

      Fermentation is a great way to produce medicine. When it comes to really complex medicines, such as insulin, it is really the only way. That’s because fermentation can do the precise and complex transformations that we cannot do in reactors. Not yet anyway.

      For that precision and complexity you pay a price: reactions are slower (meaning you need larger, more expensive reactors) and conversion efficiency is usually much lower (meaning a lot of your feedstock gets wasted).

      Fuels are the polar opposite of complex medicine: we need large volumes at the lowest possible cost. This is an application for which fermentation is fundamentally unsuited…

  4. By kentvincent on October 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Mr. Rapier, I seem to remember you raising a similar argument against Coskata for redissolving syngas generated into a fluid bioreactor instead of leaving it in the gaseous phase. Is this a recurrent theme in questionable industrial biotech processes?

    • By Robert Rapier on October 17, 2014 at 3:34 pm

      Yes. There were others. I wrote a article critical of Coskata’s claims several years ago. They shifted strategies 4 years later after figuring out they could not in fact make ethanol from wood for $1 a gallon. So now they are trying to do it with natural gas feedstock, but they are hanging onto the fermentation approach. I just don’t see that approach being commercially viable except maybe in extreme niche situations.

      • By Forrest on October 17, 2014 at 5:27 pm

        May some of these competing processes hemorrhaging from success of field corn ethanol? Iowa is currently selling E85 as low as $1.26 gallon wholesale. That includes profit and more expensive gasoline. Also, the logistics of cellulosic feed stock from farm supply must be the first choice as compared to ethanol competing processes. The feed stock is old hand for farmers, they have optimized the harvesting and growing of feed stock long ago. They have equipment in place, expensed per normal farming practices. Poet has a competitive operation combining starch technology with cellulosic. The synergy of the two processes combined improve bottom line of both. All the indicators for improvement and cost reduction are positive. For example one equipment supplier is getting into business of pelleting corn residue for variety of industries from ethanol, feed, and heating stoves. Actually, some coal fired power plants interested. They have a feed product better digested and healthier than corn. It utilizes all the by products of ethanol mixed with stover. Distillery grains by product just recently calculated to have higher energy content for feed per pound than corn. Also, with the fermenting process a big gain in protein and healthy supplements. Another company is betting on wet ponding of stover much like the paper industry. The quality of fiber is maintained, no fire hazard, it’s cleaner, conversion process in process, handling efficiency improved, and bulk decreased 10x. If I was an investor of LanzaTech I would be watching the competition.

        • By Optimist on October 28, 2014 at 4:19 pm

          E85 prices are benefiting from low corn prices. This raises an interesting challenge for Uncle Sam: does he focus on the corn farmers (that is try to rise corn prices) or on the alternative fuel BS, cattle ranchers, etc. etc.?

          The political theater just got more interesting…

          But then fools have a tendency to charge into situations others would avoid…

  5. By Forrest on October 18, 2014 at 8:41 am

    So, gas fed bacteria only capable of 4% alcohol solution? Ouch. There is an alcohol alternative to ethanol process that suffered similar process problems with weak alcohol solution. It’s a big process hurdle. The microbe process is valuable for cleaning up pollution stream. The workforce is very cheap and tireless. I do think were entering into a biological revolution that will be long sustained. It’s difficult complex science. We know little of the biological world, and what we discover continues to amaze scientist. I didn’t realize evolution was such a powerful force, lol. Much R&D efforts directed to CO2 and CO emissions of industry. Interesting promising technology from a diverse technology. Who knows the most efficient and cost effective process over time? Chemist and thermal calculations are a bit anemic when attempting to predict biological processes. Was listening to Notre Dame prof that accidentally discovered seeds produced naturally with a microbe that protects the seed from rotting in soil. Soil is alive with unknowable quantities of micro organisms. A jungle of microbiology that all look to feast on something. Deadly E. coli being one organism that can affect food supply, but held harmless by active soil. Come to find out the seed is extremely vulnerable to attack for first few days before photosynthesis energy production. Seed development has selective mechanism to thwart invasion but chemically active to take up E4 microbe that protects the seed. The R&D work is pointing to the soil micro culture as most powerful and may lead to complete transformation of farming practices. The science and energy sectors are moving a little to disclose the future potential future energy sources as a sugar and hydrogen economy. The battery car will have it’s place in high density urban zones, but not a complete solution to all transportation needs. The hybrid auto already losing out to efficient ICE and lower cost complementary hybrid. People woke up to the fact increasing a 50 mpg car to 100 mpg car does not save much money and not justifiable per the extra cost. Also, environmentalist may have a V8 moment wherein they realize the battery car is not pollution less.

    • By Robert Rapier on October 18, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      “So, gas fed bacteria only capable of 4% alcohol solution?”

      It could be slightly higher, but that’s the crux of the issue.

      • By Forrest on October 19, 2014 at 6:36 am

        Does this sound familiar? “Historically, one of the major challenges in the production of bio-butanol (normal or iso-butanol) is that the toxicity to microbes is high (particularly for n-BuOH) and therefore the concentrations that can be achieved have been very low. This means that the product may contain less than 2% butanol (and 98% water), which makes the separation too energy intensive to be economical.”

        R&D efforts to improve organisms resilience to alcohol toxicity have recently reported much progress. Minor changes to water chemistry improve microbe membrane ability to endure higher alcohol concentrations. A soil bacterium was discovered with high abilities. They utilize with E-coli for pretrement of woody biomass or inject in microbe for high concentrations of beer. This will improve both butanol and ethanol processes. A few ethanol plants have adapted process flexibility for isobutanol. Good to have new markets. Also, ethanol plants utilize the RO membrane technology, but think it’s the final polish of removing water after distillation during gas state? Richard Branson is 2rd highest investor in Gevo process. I like the guy per business genius and ability to thwart typical advice that “it can’t be done”.

        • By Forrest on October 19, 2014 at 7:00 am

          Environmentalist dream of value of doubling mileage. I knew a single female mother that swallowed the hype and foolishly invested in Prius thinking the high mileage would pay for the car. She filed chapter 11. Smart thinking. AAA for 2013 had typical car ownership at $9,000 per year expense. This includes tires, maintenance, registration fees, depreciation, financing cost and fuel cost. At average 15k/yr annual miles equals 60 cents per mile. So, focus owners should invest to save 2 cents per mile? MSRP of 2014 focus is $16,80 vs $24,200 for Prius? The only way this would be cost justified is if the fuel cost was zero. Probably the same scenario with battery car. Also, the environmental benefit very soft with current grid power. If that was a concern save your money and improve environment with E85 fuel fill.

        • By Forrest on October 20, 2014 at 7:45 am

          The distillation energy cost of biofuel production is of much concern. Ethanol plants are loaded with r/o pumps, vacuum pumps, dryers, centrifuges, distillation column. They have to dry distillery grains, dehydrate brewers syrup, and distil the ethanol azeotrope mix. Also, the agents used to remove trace water within ethanol may need to be regenerated. All of this could be accomplished with low grade heat. For example distilling the azeotrope mix of ethanol and water needs temperatures that gradually heat the liquid finishing at 173 degrees. Drying grains not a high temperature feat, either. These plants utilize steam energy for the efficiency of distribution and heat transfer, but maybe someone should look into low temperature and low grade heat processing? Would this open up cogeneration with the huge quantities of waste heat upon most power generation and industrial processes? Also, it is mind boggling that the reverse isn’t true. Meaning hot air turbine power generation within ethanol plant that cogenerates their needed boiler heat. It seems an obvious fit for cost and fuel efficiency. I see many a ethanol plant without natural gas fuel supply and forced to large propane tanks. These plants should be some of the first to cogenerate cellulosic per the internal fuel supply, but other than that a gas turbine would greatly reduce cost of fuel.

          Also, these plants located upon the best wind energy regions of country. Ya, seems they missed another obvious energy source to lower production cost and increase carbon rating of fuel. Also, the obvious advantage to local farmers that could ship or just process wet field corn within the confines of waste heat ethanol plant processing. The corn belt utilizes huge quantities of propane during harvest season. I think that is wasteful and costs farmers to much.

        • By Optimist on October 28, 2014 at 4:32 pm

          Hey Forrest,
          Please point to specific examples of where butanol fermentation became profitable thanks to the bugs being able to withstand higher concentrations of the product.

          Research papers are great, but not the same as a viable, economic process…

          And for all his out-of-the-box innovation, Branson gets conned like anybody else by those smooth talkers.

      • By Brandon Iglesias on March 14, 2016 at 4:38 pm

        We volunteered our time to support a high school STEM student volunteer project for ABE (E = Ethanol). Very low % indeed w/double-distillation required.

    • By Optimist on October 28, 2014 at 4:36 pm

      The sugar economy relies heavily on the influence of Uncle Sam.

      2,500 years from now your great grandchildren will still be waiting for the Hydrogen Economy to arrive. But hey, it’s a nice dream for environmentalists.

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