Microsoft, Shell invest in LanzaJet, sustainable startup of jet fuel

The LanzaJet Freedom Pines Fuels plant in Soperton, Ga., Is expected to begin producing 10 million gallons of SAF and sustainable diesel per year from sustainable ethanol by 2023.

Photo courtesy of LanzaJet

Jet fuel is a notorious bugaboo in the race to reduce emissions.

Chicago-based start-up LanzaJet is trying to address the problem by producing an alternative to petroleum-based conventional jet fuel that has lower carbon emissions and works with existing infrastructure for the aerospace industry.

The company, founded in 2020, has not yet generated any revenue, but it has received enough funding to go. It recently received $ 50 million in funding from Microsoft, in addition to previous investments by Shell and a handful of other energy companies and airlines, and the U.S. Department of Energy has invested $ 14 million in a subsidiary of the company to build LanzaJet’s first plant in Georgia. . By 2023, this plant is expected to produce tens of millions of gallons of sustainable jet and diesel fuels.

Non-military aviation represents 11% of U.S. emissions to transportation, according to the White House. And almost all of that emissions come from jet fuel, says Dan Rutherford, the aviation director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. For example, United reported 15.49 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020, and 15.39 metric tons of that came from jet fuel.

No new planes or new planes needed

There are several ways to decarbonize the aviation industry, which is generally considered to be one of the hardest sectors to clean.

None of them is perfect.

Electric aircraft are in their early stages of development and production, but today’s battery technology has range limitations, and the batteries themselves are heavy, which is a problem in air travel.

Hydrogen-powered aircraft are another option, but producing clean hydrogen today is expensive, and it would not work on existing aircraft. Engines would need to be modified. Airbus, for example, is developing a hydrogen-powered aircraft, but it may not be in production until 2035.

Compatibility with existing aircraft is necessary to clean up the airline industry today, as aircraft take between 20 and 30 years and the design of a new aircraft takes about a decade.

Aviation, too, is necessarily a global industry. A solution should work wherever an airplane goes.

“That, the US may make progress in developing and deploying a hydrogen-powered aircraft. Will India also be willing to accept and thank that aircraft?” said LanzaJet CEO Jimmy Samartzis.

That remains sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, which is certified to work with existing aircraft. LanzaJet’s SAF can be mixed with regular jet fuel in a 50/50 mix.

“For us, it’s about the urgency to take action today.” Samartzis told CNBC. ,SAF is the best solution for the coming years and probably two-plus decades. “

The LanzaJet Freedom Pines Fuels plant in Soperton, Ga.

Photo courtesy of LanzaJet

The technology of LanzaJet is able to use any ethanol, made from plant material. But not all ethanol is made with the same climate footprint.

In the United States, 94% of ethanol is produced from corn, according to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.

But jet fuel produced from corn ethanol in the US would have emissions similar to regular jet fuel, if you once took all the carbon dioxide into account in producing that corn, according to one analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation. Samartzis points to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency which estimates that SAF produced from current corn ethanol has only 15% lower “carbon intensity” than petroleum jet fuel, but Rutherford says the analysis is “optimistic.” The EPA also outlines a path through which corn ethanol could be produced with 153% lower carbon intensity than conventional jet fuel, if any clean innovation is implemented, a process that Rutherford calls “speculative” at best.

LanzaJet is committed to using ethanol that is made with minimal carbon emissions.

For the plant in Soperton, Ga., LanzaJet will use ethanol made from low-carbon intensity sugarcane; corn crop residues including corn kernel fiber and corn stover; biogas; and waste gases from industrial processes.

The biogas and waste gas processes were pioneered by sister company LanzaTech (one of CNBC’s Disruptor 50 companies). LanzaTech uses a bacterial fermentation process to convert pollution into fuels and chemicals, in a process similar to making beer.

In the future, LanzaJet may consider using ethanol made from corn as it can be made with low carbon intensity, whether by carbon capture and sequestration or other methods.

“There is work to be done in the maize ethanol industry to improve the carbon intensity of maize ethanol and to better understand the actual performance of a lower maize ethanol carbon intensity than what is reported as a blanket statistic for the industry,” Samartzis told CNBC. “Some corn ethanol producers have done a good job of lowering the carbon intensity of their corn ethanol.”

Samartzis joined the start-up of United, where he worked for more than ten years developing the sustainable aviation sector. The ethos in space has changed, he says.

At United, around 2008, research into alternative fuels was catalyzed by sky-high crude oil prices. Now, however, the momentum of the industry is being driven by efforts to reduce the effects of climate change.

“I think the pressure to take action is certainly there today. It was not there 13 years ago,” Samartzis said. “That pressure comes from investors, it comes from consumers. And it comes from governments, to be honest, who are tightening things up and saying you need to do better.”

In September, the Biden administration said it had taken steps to decarbonise the aviation sector by 2050, and SAF will be a key part of that.

“In the future, electric and hydrogen-powered aviation could unlock affordable and convenient local and regional travel,” the Biden administration said. “But for today’s long-distance travel, we need courageous partnerships to stimulate the deployment of billions of gallons of sustainable aviation fuels quickly.”

Racing to market

LanzaTech’s early work enabled LanzaJet to move quickly, Samartzis said.

“The science is hard and it takes a long time for companies to develop new technology. In our case, scaling has taken almost 10 years,” Samartzis told CNBC.

For Shell, LanzaJet’s technology will help it reach its goal of producing about 2 million tonnes of SAF a year by 2025, a spokesman for the company told CNBC. Shell aims to have 10% of its global aviation fuel sales through SAF by 2030. To achieve this, Shell will sublicense the LanzaJet technology in the coming years.

Microsoft’s $ 50 million investment in LanzaJet is part of its Climate Innovation Fund, with which the software behemoth invests $ 1 billion over four years to develop technologies that reduce their own carbon footprint and that of their suppliers and customers.

Microsoft will also have access to sustainable diesel made by LanzaJet, which can use it to operate backup generators at its data centers.

Jet fuel is certainly the focus of LanzaJet, but it is possible for LanzaJet to use its same plant to produce sustainable diesel, says Samartzis.

The main trick for LanzaJet now is to make their SAF product affordable.

“Sustainable aviation fuel products that have historically been 3x 4x 5x 6x the price of conventional fossil based jet fuel,” Samartzis said. “We’re trying to build a new industry. And we’re trying to give it momentum. And part of the way we do that is by saying, our product is not 3x.”

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