In the morning of Oct. 3, 2018, Virgin Atlantic flight VS16 landed at London Gatwick from Orlando, Florida, to become the first commercial flight completed on jet fuel recycled from steel mill emissions. Using a carbon recycling technology developed by the Chicago-based research and development company, LanzaTech — in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) — carbon-rich gasses are converted to ethanol. This ethanol, similar to traditional fermentation, can then be used to produce an alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK), which was approved this year to be used in commercial flights at up to 50 percent blends with conventional jet fuel. Virgin’s flight consisted of 5 percent recycled fuel.

“The LanzaTech process is important because this fuel takes waste, carbon-rich gases from industrial factories and gives them a second life – so that new fossil fuels don’t have to be taken out of the ground,” said Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson in a press release celebrating the flight’s completion. “This flight is a huge step forward in making this new technology a mainstream reality.”

If made available to the world’s eligible steel mills (an estimated 65 percent of all), the technology could produce enough fuel to meet around 20 percent of the current commercial global aviation fuel demand, according to LanzaTech, putting a green stamp on the steelmaking industry in the process. 

Here, LanzaTech's chief sustainability and people officer, Freya Burton, talks about the companies fuel research and its potential impact on the steelmaking industry. 

What steelmakers make good candidates for using their emissions to create the fuel and why? 

Fully integrated steel producers convert iron ore to crude steel via smelting operations. Metallurgical coke is added during these operations as a reducing agent as well as to fix the specification carbon content of crude steel. About 1.5B MTA of steel is produced via the smelting route. This particular steel making route is considered  the third largest emitter of GHG after the power and cement sectors. Consequently, this steel sector is under increased scrutiny by environmental agencies and, therefore, quite ripe for solutions that enables it to lower its carbon footprint. The LanzaTech technology is a nice fit in that  it not only curbs the emissions but more importantly adds value to the emissions by recycling the carbon to sustainable fuels and chemicals.

Electric arc furnace are the other major steel production route, but the feedstock in this instance is scrap steel and is significantly less carbon intensive.

If we are able to actively and rapidly use the byproducts of steelmaking to make fuel, does steelmaking have the potential to be a green industry?

Yes, that is correct. As mentioned, today steel producers use fossil carbon as a reducing agent in the chemistry of steel making. The steel industry has made great progress over the years in recycling rates and increasing efficiencies, however the technologies to replace fossil carbon in this process across the whole industry are still in the future. To that end, capturing the carbon emissions and local pollutants from the process is a way to improve the sustainability of steelmaking. In addition, by adding a carbon capture technology onto a steel mill, we are creating new jobs in the carbon capture industry.

Once the fuel is used for airplane fuel, is LanzaTech working on a process to reuse the emissions from planes?

The process of making fuel from emissions is 2-fold. First, ethanol is made through fermenting carbon emissions and then this ethanol is converted through a second step into a drop in jet fuel. The resulting fuel, exceeds the properties of petroleum-based jet fuel in terms of efficiency and burns much cleaner. By recycling carbon already in the environment (e.g. from the steel mill) and not using fresh fossil resources for jet fuel, it allows the world keep more petroleum in the ground. The resulting fuel has a carbon reduction potential of over 70 percent compared to fossil jet.

The process of creating the fuel has been compared to beer fermentation. What other experiments is LanzaTech working on using fermentation?

Our core technology is gas fermentation and while the process stays the same, the input gas feedstock can change and the product output can change. But essentially the fermentation process stays the same.

You’ve proved that you can power planes with the Virgin Atlantic flight. How long until you are able to power cars?

We can already power cars with the ethanol we produce. In China, where our first commercial plant is operating, ethanol from steel mill emissions is being sold into the fuel blending pool.

Since grade school, everyone has been taught that carbon emissions are bad. How do you foresee LanzaTech’s products and developments with the reuse of emissions changing that point of view?

LanzaTech’s carbon recycling technology provides an important link between a waste resource and its transformation into a new commodity material or fuel. In this way the LanzaTech process gives new life to the carbon-rich resources that are already in use, and greatly reduces the need for fresh, fossil, resources to be introduced. Through the process of carbon recycling the vast quantities of waste resources from industry, society and agriculture can all be used to displace oil-derived products and minimize greenhouse emissions. Imagine a day when your plane is powered by recycled GHG emissions, when your sports shoes started life as pollution from a steel mill. This future is possible using LanzaTech technology.

LanzaTech is changing how people think about carbon. By introducing the option to recycle a “liability” to produce valuable and sustainable new products, end users are starting to ask for recycled carbon in their supply chain. (Our) objective is to provide consumers with a choice to where the carbon in their products comes from, creating Carbon Smart products made from recycled carbon embedded in the supply chain of consumers around the world.