Interview: LanzaTech’s Laurel Harmon on why sustainability is at the core of all they do
Hi Laurel, thanks so much for sitting down with us today. It’s been a real pleasure to welcome you to our Board of Directors – your election is definitely reflection of your commitment to RSB!
Firstly, can you tell us a little about your own journey in the bioeconomy – how did you get to where you are?
My first job was actually for a non-profit R&D company that designed the first imaging systems that analysed land use from satellites, so maybe that could be considered an early introduction to the bioeconomy. Much later, I was working with UOP when the company was first investigating applications refining and petrochemical technologies to non-petroleum feedstocks. That was my real introduction to the sector.
How has the bioeconomy changed since you first got involved?
The biggest change I see is the recognition that there is an enormous array of biological options beyond plants and beyond fuels. Today we see biology being harnessed in different ways to produce materials like plastics, or chemicals and nutraceuticals, as well as of course fuels. So the “bioeconomy” is really a very broad term, in which bio” may refer to feedstocks or to the way raw materials are transformed into useful products.
Our members are drawn from all parts of the bioeconomy and civil society – can you give us a layman’s guide to the Lanzatech process?
LanzaTech’s core technology is called “gas fermentation”. This is a lot like traditional beer- or wine-making, where yeast consume sugar to make ethanol. In our case, we use microbes that live on gases instead of sugar, but like yeast, they produce ethanol. We have also trained them to make many other chemicals that can replace chemicals we currently get from petroleum. The gases to feed our microbes can be waste gases from industry or gases produced from other types of materials such as agricultural or forestry resides or even unsorted, unrecyclable municipal solid waste.
What are the biggest challenges Lanzatech (and others) face in scaling up?
There are always technical challenges in scaling up a technology and it’s very important with new processes to gain experience at each appropriate scale before going to the next. In our case, since our technology was the first of its kind, we operated at small scale in the lab, then lab and small industrial pilots, and finally two pre-commercial demonstrations, before finally building the first full commercial plant. As you can imagine, this takes a significant amount of time and money. And the larger the scale, the more capital is required – yet even a demonstration plant doesn’t usually generate revenue, so securing investment can be very difficult. These twin challenges of time and money are faced by any company developing a truly new technology. In addition, new technologies often face legislative or regulatory challenges because the technologies did not exist or were at an early stage when regulations were developed. We see a trend toward increasingly technology neutral legislation, which will allow all sustainable technologies to contribute to solving our climate crisis.
What does the future hold for Lanzatech?
The main thing I would say is that we will continue to expand our platform and partnerships to diversify the applications for carbon recycling. For example, we are working with partners on multiple ways to use recycled carbon in polymers and other materials. This means that the carbon from waste gases or residues can now be “locked away” in durable goods. One thing I haven’t talked about so far is our work on sustainable aviation fuel. We have scaled up and are commercialising technology to make jet fuel from ethanol. This technology originated at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, one of the US Department of Energy national labs and can use any ethanol to make sustainable aviation fuel – not just LanzaTech’s ethanol. This will be another major thrust for LanzaTech in the next few years. Overall, we hope that carbon recycling will become the norm, as one way to meet people’s continuing need for fuels and materials without further contributing to climate change.
Why is sustainability, and working with RSB, so important to you and Lanzatech?
Sustainability is our reason for existence! From the beginning, the goal of the company was to find a way to make fuels that didn’t impact key resources such as land, food or water. We engaged with RSB early on because we thought it was very important to assess all aspects of sustainability and we saw RSB as the gold standard. Having been developed through a robust multi-stakeholder process, we felt that the RSB Standard had the breadth and depth to do that. That was why we took the step of having one of our demonstration plants certified by RSB – so that we could work with RSB to look at all potential impacts and inform our thinking as we scaled up the technology. As we have progressed, RSB has become increasingly important to our customers, first in the aviation space, and now in the chemicals and materials sectors.
As an RSB Board member you will be helping to direct our strategy and organisation as we move forward – where do you hope to see us going in the next 5 years?
In a nutshell, I hope to see RSB remain the “gold standard” in sustainability certification while broadening its reach and impact. First, it is vital for RSB to grow – and by growth, I mean increasing the number and breadth of stakeholders involved in developing and using the standard, expanding into new geographies, and contributing to new sectors. This of course will mean that we need to grow our staff to support Standards development and use. It’s been very exciting to see RSB take a leadership role in defining standards for advanced fuels and materials. This is an excellent example of how RSB’s scope and influence can grow and I hope to see that continue. Changes in feedstocks, technologies and applications are only going to accelerate and RSB will become even more important in ensuring that these new developments are sustainable.
Finally, what’s been your proudest moment of 2018 (and you don’t have to say your election to the board!)?
With permission – I’d like to put two moments on the table. It would be hard for anything to top the successful startup of our first commercial plant, making ethanol from recycled steel mill emissions! It started up in May of last year and so far, we’ve made well over 5 million gallons of ethanol from these emissions – who would have thought that was even possible a couple decades ago? We are equally proud that Virgin Atlantic flew a 747 from Orlando, Florida to London Gatwick in October, powered by jet from steel mill emissions! In fact, that jet was produced from ethanol that was made in the demonstration facility that was first certified by RSB, at the same steel mill as the first commercial plant. So I guess you could say these two moments are closely related. It’s been a long road to get here and there is still a long road ahead for us all to create a sustainable future, but the commercial startup and flight were huge steps in our journey.