October 16, 2012 Sean McWard

The Greening of Petronas: oil giant signs with LanzaTech to turn waste CO2 into sustainable chemicals

BioBased DigestPublication: BioBased Digest
Published: October 16, 2012
Author: Jim Lane

Waste CO2 from Petronas operations will be captured by LanzaTech’s process to create economic routes to acetic acid, and other downstream products.

In Malaysia, LanzaTech and the Malaysian national oil company, Petronas, announced they will work together to accelerate the development and commercialization of technologies to produce sustainable chemicals from carbon dioxide (CO2) and natural gas.

The joint development agreement builds on the relationship between the two companies established earlier this year when Petronas Technology Ventures, the venture arm of Petronas, invested in LanzaTech as part of the company’s Series C round.

LanzaTech’s proprietary fermentation process converts carbon monoxide (CO) in industrial waste gases, reformed natural gas and gas derived from any biomass source, into low carbon fuels and chemicals. LanzaTech and Petronas will work together to extend this technology to include carbon dioxide (CO2) containing gases from a variety of sources including refinery off gases and natural gas wells to produce acetic acid, a high value chemical with applications in the polymers and plastics markets.

The companies react

“Petronas and LanzaTech have the ability to significantly impact the future of carbon capture by fundamentally changing the way we deal with waste CO2,” said LanzaTech CEO, Jennifer Holmgren. “Rather than trying to sequester carbon deep into the earth, we will “bury” it in a chemical. In this way, companies can not only comply with emissions reduction requirements, but also generate revenue along the way.”

“We invested in LanzaTech because we saw an opportunity for PETRONAS to benefit from the integration of LanzaTech’s technology in multiple areas of our business,” said Haida Shenny Hazri, CEO of Petronas Technology Ventures Sdn Bhd. “This is a natural extension of LanzaTech’s core gas fermentation technology and it is a natural fit with Petronas’ commitment to achieving a sustainable future for all.”

CO2 conversion

To date, LanzaTech has been largely known for its work in carbon monoxide conversion – partnering with steel mills like Bao Steel, and using its advanced technology to ferment those waste gases into ethanol.

So, CO, CO2 – one little oxygen atom of difference. How big a deal is that?

Um, plenty. You see, in carbon monoxide, the CO can be both the carbon and the energy source; in the case of CO2, it can only be the carbon sourc. So you need an energy source. Enter, from stage left, our old friend hydrogen.

The good news is that, leveraging their existing reactor system and gas fermentation knowledge, LanzaTech has figured out how to ferment CO2, in the presence of hydrogen, to acetic acid.

OK, what’s the big deal, exactly? Ah, grasshopper, they’ve taken CO2 remediation out of the realm of cost-intensive sequestration and moved into a technology that provides an economic benefit. And, in this case, the CO2 is not burned for fuel, thereby re-releasing it into the atmosphere – it’s in the acetic acid, locked away in the service of green chemistry.

Back to our old friend, hydrogen

Isn’t hydrogen expensive? It surely is, if you are trying to make it. The key here is to find it. There’s plenty of hydrogen around in places like coke oven gas in steel, or in the coal industry; some chemical and mining companies have extra hydrogen- not enough to make it worthwhile to recompress, but enough to make a process like LanzaTech’s work.

It will be interesting to see LanzaTech and Petronas to balance three factors – desire to work in Malaysia, and the twin demands for CO2 and hydrogen.

The acetic acid market

You’ve seen acetic acid before – mixed with 10.5 times its weight in water, and that’s vinegar. Along with demand for acetates and polyvinyl acetate (used for glues, latex paints, nail polish remover – even to decaffeinate your coffee), that’s the main market for acetic acid, which adds up to 9 million tons per year worth $4.5 billion. Nice,m but easily saturated.

So, on to other potential chemistry pathways. One option is to convert acetic acid to lipids – as a group at the University of Wisconsin has been demonstrating. Turns out that you can make a coconut like oil from acetric acid. That gives you a pathway to jet, diesel and gasoline – and even cosmetics and food products (as Solazyme has shown).

How soon?

Not soon. In this decade at scale? Sure, that’s more than possible. But this process is in the lab right now – will need a pilot, then demonstration, then commercialization – that’s a process that will take several years.

The bottom line

Petronas is on the move now, in turning to green opportunities. In this case, a big first step – an investment in LanzaTech’s Series C venture round – is being translated into some significant opportunities to monetize its CO2 assets later in the decade.

We’ll keep an eye out on the hydrogen front. That’s a key for the partners to source, sustainably and affordably.

Funny about how we write about it now – CO2 assets. How far we have come from the days when CO2 was only though of in terms of the climate-changing liabilities.