Cleaning Up Episode 100 Edited Highlights – Dr Jennifer Holmgren
Michael Liebreich So, Jennifer, you are the CEO of LanzaTech. I'd love to hear, in your words, what it is you do.
Dr Jennifer Holmgren LanzaTech is trying to make all the products you use in your daily lives, whether it be sustainable aviation fuel or polyester or foam for shoes, from recycled carbon, so that we can keep virgin fossil carbon in the ground. The way we do it is we have bacteria that ferments gases. So, you're used to the fermentation of sugar, right? That's how you make beer. We make beer, but we do it by fermenting a gas - hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases. Our bacteria eats that, and makes ethanol, and then we take ethanol and we convert it to everything else. Ethanol can be converted to sustainable aviation fuel, polyester, surfactants for detergents. Coty is using our ethanol in their perfumes, the Climate Care Nivea for Men has our ethanol in it. You can use the ethanol for a lot of things beyond blending with gasoline.
Michael Liebreich Why is it such a great technology to stick on the back of an alloy or a steel plant?
Dr Jennifer Holmgren You can't emit CO: carbon monoxide is toxic. So, plants flare it out as CO2 in particular emissions. We prevent that. Carbon monoxide is like sugar for our organism, it has carbon and energy, it says yum and away it goes. That’s why we started there: we were really focused on climate mitigation strategies. At the end of the day, we don't want carbon ever being combusted and going to waste. Why are we wasting good carbon that can go into chemicals and fuels, on power production? In a steel mill where they have to use carbon as part of that chemical process, they always have a tonne of carbon monoxide that literally comes off the steel. You've just got to grab that stuff and not let it go to waste, and turn it into products.
Michael Liebreich If a mill goes to a hydrogen reduction process, presumably that doesn't then produce a useful stream of gas for you?
Dr Jennifer Holmgren We can use our technology as long as there's CO2, which there will be at a steel mill, even if it just uses hydrogen. We're actually counting on a future where steel mills and everything else transition to hydrogen. If we can get hydrogen at the right price point under $3 a keg delivered, we can be competitive making ethanol from CO2. We also have partnerships with Direct Air Capture companies, where we are able to use their captured CO2 with hydrogen
Michael Liebreich My concern with Direct Air Capture is those companies use a lot of energy; they want to burn a lot of natural gas to do it…
Dr Jennifer Holmgren I think in the end we need these technologies. I think the natural gas that they use could be replaced with hydrogen, in the case of Carbon Engineering. We've got to get a lot of technologies to scale to be successful. And each technology as it gets to scale, just like solar, gets cheaper and more efficient and people get smarter. Today, Carbon Engineering uses natural gas, but tomorrow they'll use hydrogen. And so, the life cycle footprint will get lower and better. One of the things that we're all relying on when we talk hydrogen or Direct Air Capture is there being abundant, clean power. Tell me what your view is on that, are we going to get there from here?
Michael Liebreich Green hydrogen is going to become cheaper than blue hydrogen, and it's going to become ultimately cheaper than grey hydrogen. But I worry that there'll be lots of very cheap hydrogen, but not till about 2040 or maybe even 2050. That's my worry.
Dr Jennifer Holmgren We can't afford 30 to 40 years to get down a curve anymore, that just doesn't work. But I think finance is a path to changing that. Our company has been around for 17 years; building a pilot and then building a demo and then building commercial… Every time I have to go out and get cash, every time I have to figure out how to build the next scale. I cannot make the science go faster. Every time you skip steps in science, it takes you ten times longer to get it done. Finance and more clever methods to finance scaling and crossing the Valley of Death for new process technologies will allow us to get down the curve faster. We’ve got to decide whether the risk of climate change is greater than the risk on the investment side, and how do we guarantee that... All the diligence that's required to guarantee the next scale is great in the normal world, but the risk now is catastrophic. I think we need to start making faster decisions.
Michael Liebreich With hydrogen and Direct Air Capture, I worry that we put too many eggs in those baskets. We don't have the time to waste pouring money into things that aren't going to be part of the eventual matrix.
Dr Jennifer Holmgren Let’s talk about hydrogen and moving it across the world as a compressed gas. The problem we have is we cannot get ourselves mentally out of the paradigm that everything has to be concentrated and in a large centralized production. If solar has taught us anything, if what I'm doing has taught us anything, it's that distributed approaches are the future. You saw the EDF study on hydrogen and fugitive hydrogen. Don't make it at a central location, don't distribute it as a compressed gas. Do it locally, make it where you need it. We need to step off the paradigm that bigger is better, that centralized is better, and get ourselves into a mode where we say the future carbon economy is distributed. The problem we have is to mentally uncouple ourselves from our old economy to create a new economy.
Michael Liebreich You've also got this business LanzaJet which is making sustainable airline fuels, which are not ethanol. They're not alcohols, are they?
Dr Jennifer Holmgren No. Ethanol doesn't have the energy density to take a plane across the pond. You need a hydrocarbon. In my old job, I developed a drop-in replacement hydrocarbon fuel that allowed us to show that you can actually fly on a biologically supplied hydrocarbon. And so, when I came to LanzaTech, I realized ethanol can be made from anything and it's made by everybody. If we could take ethanol to jet fuel, that would be tremendous. We spun it out as its own company so that right now we're building a 10 million gallon a year plant and we have investment from Suncor, Mitsubishi, Shell, British Airways and ANA and Microsoft are also helping. With each of the investors we'll build commercial plants with them. They’ve committed to that next step, so we're ready to go to the next step without stopping and getting financing,
Michael Liebreich Sustainable airline fuel is clearly going to be very important. How important?
Dr Jennifer Holmgren By 2030, the airlines have committed to almost 10% of fuel being made in a sustainable fashion. So not fossil-derived. Today, the world uses 100 billion gallons a year of aviation fuel. So, we're going to get to 10 billion gallons a year by 2030. Today, the world makes 30 million. We’ve got eight years to add about nine and a half billion gallons. That is massive. That tells you how fast we have to build plants.
Michael Liebreich How much have you raised in total for both those businesses - LanzaTech and Lanzajet?
Dr Jennifer Holmgren More than $500 million, we've raised. So, 17 years, $500 million, a little bit over that. I don't think you can get a company that does a brand-new process technology across the Valley of Death successfully with anything less than that. To be honest, I think there's a lack of hope that people can scale new technologies, that we can get away from everything being made from fossils. And I want other companies to know that it's possible to take an idea and turn it into something real.