Fermentation is the new fad for many foodies, prompting a boom in homemade beers, sauerkrauts, kimchi, and all the accompanying accessories. And now, fermentation may be a key to dealing with municipal solid waste, by converting it to a highly useful materials stream for new products.
SEKISUI Chemical Company, a multibillion dollar Japanese diversified chemicals company, has partnered with Lanzatech, a carbon recycling company, to complete a successful pilot-scale demonstration of a waste-to-chemicals platform that converts municipal solid waste to new chemical products that are precursors to plastics, rubbers and synthetic fibers used in production of new packaging, from sneakers to cell phone cases and even yoga pants.
Today, many municipal solid waste streams are incinerated or super-heated to produce a synthesis gas made up of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which is then combusted for power and emitted as carbon dioxide (CO2). With the fall in global renewable power costs and the rise of emissions reductions targets, SEKISUI wanted to do better. Together with LanzaTech, they have taken an existing gasification system at a landfill site and added LanzaTech’s fermentation capability to a slipstream of the gas. They have shown that it is possible to recycle the carbon from unsorted MSW destined for landfill or the incinerator and ferment it to make new products, products that would otherwise come from fossil resources or sugars.
In contrast to traditional fermentation that uses yeast to convert sugars into products such as ethanol, LanzaTech actually ferments carbon-rich waste gases, producing ethanol and a variety of liquid chemicals using a naturally occurring bacteria. The technology, first demonstrated in 2013 in a laboratory unit, has now achieved commercial productivity and stability targets. SEKISUI’s Senior Managing Executive Officer for Corporate Research & Development Satoshi Uenoyama says that garbage is an important resource. “It is essential our society effectively utilizes this valuable and abundant resource as the ‘urban oil field’ of the future enabling the creation of a sustainable society.” The company intends to replicate the technology widely. This pilot program aligns with Japan’s “3R” strategy of reducing, reusing and recycling resources and supports the nationwide movement to reduce emissions by 26% below 2013 levels by 2030 according to Japan’s Paris Climate commitments.
“We must focus on using carbon for products, not power, giving carbon a second chance of life,” said LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren. “Imagine being able to look at your trash can and know that you can lock all that waste carbon into a circular system, avoiding CO2 emissions and maximizing our precious carbon resources.”