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Climate Judo: A Path to Turn Crisis Into Jobs
COMMENTARY

March 12, 2021by Dr. Sean Simpson, Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of LanzaTech
Sean spent the first 12 years of his life living in various countries around the world, including Mauritius, Zambia and Gibraltar, before his family returned to England. He now lives with his family in Chicago, USA.

At the heart of the Martial Art Judo is the notion that the momentum of your opponent’s aggression can be converted to your advantage in overcoming them. Advances in technology and a global momentum to avert the deepening climate crisis have brought us to the cusp of a new industrial era in which recycled CO2 will be the feedstock, and clean electricity the energy source, to produce the climate-safe materials and fuels that are today made from oil. Moving to an industry based on refining CO2 rather than oil can be likened to environmental Judo as it allows us to harness the very basis of the climate crisis as a climate solution. A transition from oil refining to “carbon refining” enables us to turn the threat of the climate crisis into an opportunity for industrial rebirth, distributed sustainable production, domestic supply chain security, and rural economic development.

The technical barriers to end the age of oil and oil-refining have been overcome. This polluting value chain can increasingly be replaced by CO2 and carbon refining using proven technology for a sustainable, and more resilient economy. A transition away from oil provides a path to finally correlate economic growth and national prosperity with environmental justice in a positively reinforcing cycle.

Rural communities can emerge as the major beneficiaries from this transition. Energy from the sun is already being harvested for sustainable production of power, food and fuels in these communities. Large scale wind and solar farms ensure lowest cost sustainable power is now a feature of these regions. Add to this the fact that some of the most highly concentrated sources of CO2 are produced by the rural bioethanol industry, and we have the basis for the growth of a new carbon refining infrastructure.

The dramatic fall in the cost of clean electricity is a key enabler for carbon refining. Electricity will not only power toasters, TVs and Teslas, but thanks to processes like water electrolysis, electrical energy can be transformed into chemical energy in the form of hydrogen and drive fuel, chemical, and materials manufacture. Carbon refining combines mature process technologies that can use greenhouse carbon molecules such as CO2 alongside green hydrogen as feedstocks for making sustainable fuels and materials—replacing virgin oil production.

For example, a typical U.S. corn ethanol plant producing 100 million gallons of ethanol per year also produces over 280,000 tons of concentrated CO2. With the right combination of technologies and 300 MW of clean electricity, this CO2 could be turned into an additional 50 million gallons of ethanol Such a process is economically attractive as prices drop below 3¢/kwh in today’s clean electricity market. Behind-the-meter projects enabling power-to-products also offer a path to accelerate clean energy deployment by removing transmission constraints.

To match the almost inconceivable scale at which oil is refined, carbon refineries must look far beyond increasing the output efficiency of bioethanol plants. There are clear logical phases to ramp up production capacity centered around harnessing available high-volume, low-cost, carbon-rich resources including, agricultural residues from farms and forests, landfill waste, and hard to abate industrial emissions. These either exist as a gas or can be readily converted to gases with known industrial technology. When combined with green hydrogen and additional CO2, these resources could be sufficient to entirely displace the products from oil refining in the US today.

The past several decades have seen an accelerating drift of blue-collar jobs to manufacturing hubs offshore. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the serious vulnerabilities this has created in the ability of nations to supply their populations with essential goods and services when the global supply chain is disrupted. A carbon refining strategy could offer a solution to each of these challenges through economically re-invigorating domestic rural communities with a diversity of green manufacturing jobs that leverage the latest technologies from the energy, chemical and biotech industries.

“The stone age did not end because we ran out of stone, and the oil age will not end because we run out of oil.” A suite of existing technologies allows us to move now, and move fast, to replace both the products and jobs from this industry.


Dr. Sean Simpson is the Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of LanzaTech. Sean spent the first 12 years of his life living in various countries around the world, including Mauritius, Zambia and Gibraltar, before his family returned to England. He now lives with his family in Chicago, USA. Sean and his wife Silvia have two young children, a daughter Cecilia and a son Liam. Sean is an enthusiastic (if not skillful!) soccer player when time permits; he is also an avid supporter of Middlesborough “Boro” Football Club. He dreams of one day having the time to sail with his gorgeous family around the Pacific…but first he needs to learn to sail… and help LanzaTech to commercial success!

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