India: Potential for developing agricultural residues to sustainable ethanol
Opinion

India: Potential for developing agricultural residues to sustainable ethanol

LanzaTech has even produced novel biocatalyst strains capable of producing chemical intermediates beyond Ethanol, such as Isopropanol and Acetone, with more in the pipeline, supporting India’s strategic expansion into sustainable chemicals

  • By Dr. Jennifer Holmgren , CEO, LanzaTech | May 06, 2022

Let us consider the state of the planet today. The IPCC 2021 report and weather-related events around the world have made clear, climate change already affects every region of the globe. Strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in carbon emissions are critical to avoid catastrophic climate disasters. I am from Colombia and we are already seeing the impact of climate change on coffee growing communities there. It is projected that by 2050 these coffee growing regions will be much diminished. Coffee growers are one example, this will impact agricultural communities globally as temperature change brings new pests, drought, and fires. This doesn’t just impact the price of morning coffee or fruit at the market, this severely impacts the livelihoods of millions of farmers around the world. Even as we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions, carbon remains fundamental to the fuels, chemicals, and materials we depend on every day. The key question is – where does that carbon come from? 

Energy can be carbon free (wind, solar, and hydro). India’s sweeping commitment to solar power, innovative solutions and energy efficiency has demonstrated India’s leadership in the fight against climate change. This is good news, because if we are to stick to our carbon budget, as outlined by the 2015 Paris Agreement, it is key for India, the world’s third largest emitter of CO2, to be a global leader in renewable energy. 

To make liquid fuels (especially aviation fuels) and chemicals, however, we need a source of carbon. As you read this text, consider all the carbon around you. Your clothes or shoes. Do they contain synthetic fibres? Your phone? Are you reading this on a laptop or a PC? Where did the carbon come from? Certainly, none of these things can be made from solar or hydro power, but we do have a choice where the carbon in our products comes from. Continuing to use virgin fossil carbon to make these products is not sustainable given the impact of extracted, emitted, and waste carbon on our environment, climate, and vulnerable populations. 

Although these problems challenge us, they are problems we can and must solve today. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi once said, “You may never know what results come from your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.” 

Advanced technology solutions, such as LanzaTech, can recycle above-ground carbon resources from abundant carbon waste streams to meet the needs of society. This creates a closed loop, circular carbon economy where carbon is reused rather than emitted and decarbonization provides valuable, sustainable raw materials to make the things we use in our daily lives. 

A global leader in biofuels, India recognizes the urgent need for solutions with multilevel impacts across the rural economy. Burning agricultural residues to manage waste is harmful and unsustainable. LanzaTech’s gas fermentation technology offers a means to manage agricultural residues by converting them to Ethanol. Ethanol can be used directly as a fuel or chemical, converted to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), or converted to Ethylene to feed a broad array of sustainable chemical supply chains. In doing so, virgin fossil resources are displaced and the air pollution from burning in the field is avoided. 

LanzaTech Gas Fermentation Platform

The LanzaTech gas fermentation platform (Figure 1) is a commercially proven process using a biocatalyst to convert gas containing carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen (H2), and carbon dioxide (CO2) into ethanol. Biocatalysts build up products from carbon oxides (CO or CO2), found in waste gases from heavy industry (e.g., steel mills, processing plants or refineries), or syngas generated from solid wastes (e.g., agricultural residues, municipal, and industrial solid wastes), or even landfill and manure digester gas. The inherent flexibility of biology accepts a variety of waste streams readily available throughout India without adversely affecting food or land security. Ethanol produced from wastes has substantial emissions savings compared to fossil and is competitive with plant-based ethanol without impacting land use. LanzaTech has even produced novel biocatalyst strains capable of producing chemical intermediates beyond ethanol, such as isopropanol and acetone, with more in the pipeline, supporting India’s strategic expansion into sustainable chemicals.

 

Figure 1: A circular carbon economy enabled by LanzaTech’s gas fermentation platform 

Abundant Feedstock for Expanding Domestic Ethanol Production

Biomass and agricultural residues offer tremendous potential as feedstock for gasification and subsequent gas fermentation to Ethanol. Gas fermentation enables complete utilization of all carbon in the feedstock including carbon contained in the natural polymer lignin. 

According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the farm sector in India generates around 230 million metric tons of surplus agricultural residue. In lieu of low value, inefficient heat and power generation, gas fermentation could produce around 45 billion liters of Ethanol (depending on moisture level). As India’s power grid continues to be green with affordable renewable energy, demand for biomass power will come down but LanzaTech’s process will still generate value and reduce pollution. 

Approximately 100 million metric tons of bagasse (sugarcane waste biomass) are produced in India from over 500 Ethanol sugar mills, with a small portion bound for steam and power cogeneration. This could produce an additional around 17 billion liters of Ethanol. LanzaTech has partnered with Spray Engineering Devices Ltd. for a bagasse to ethanol project. Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited is working with LanzaTech to design a facility to produce 13 million liters of Ethanol annually from agricultural residues. The facility will combine gas fermentation with gasification technology from Ankur Scientific, a waste to energy company. Gasification-gas fermentation can process many types of biomass for rapid replication across India to realize the true potential of biomass for expanding Ethanol production while strengthening local value chains. 

Distributed Production and Benefits for Rural Communities

Distributed production of low carbon fuels and chemicals from agricultural residues shifts production from centralized refineries into rural economies, providing local jobs while reducing waste and pollution. Technologies like LanzaTech are essential to India’s goal of doubling farmer’s income by turning the narrative of Annadata (farmer) into Urjadata (energy provider). A typical 100,000 litre per day gasification-gas fermentation Ethanol plant can create 150-200 direct and indirect high paying jobs and generate Rs. 10-14 lakhs income per day from the sale of residues. A by-product, biochar, can benefit rural communities as a soil conditioner that also sequesters carbon. Turning agricultural residues into Ethanol instead of burning them in the field or for power reduces air pollution, a health hazard for both rural and urban communities. 

Producing Fuels, Chemicals and Materials for a Post Pollution World

Globally, countries including India are developing strategies to replace petrochemical products with low carbon alternatives. Manufacturers, major brands, and consumers desire sustainable products. LanzaTech Ethanol has been the feedstock for an array of CarbonSmart™ consumer products, most on the shelves today. Ethanol from waste carbon can be converted to Ethylene and further transformed into biopolymers, surfactants or polyester fiber. LanzaTech is working with companies like Unilever, Mibelle, L’Oréal, and COTY to make packaging, perfume, laundry detergent and household cleaners from Ethanol. India Glycols Limited has converted LanzaTech ethanol into MEG (monoethylene glycol), a key component of PET plastics.

 

Figure 2: LanzaTech CarbonSmart™ products and partners

Ethanol to Sustainable Aviation Fuel

India is committed to decarbonizing aviation, in addition to road transport and industry. As India is the 3rd largest domestic aviation market, this creates real urgency for a domestic sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry using sustainable feedstocks available today. LanzaTech, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (US DOE) Pacific Northwest National Lab and with US DOE support, developed an innovative Alcohol-to-Jet (ATJ) platform to produce SAF from Ethanol, enabling SAF production from agricultural residues and other waste carbon. India’s strong Ethanol industry makes Ethanol-based ATJ a good option for domestic SAF production. The resulting SAF is qualified for use in commercial aviation in blends of up to 50% with conventional jets. In 2020, LanzaTech spun out a new company, LanzaJet, to accelerate commercialization of this technology. 

India’s new Carbon Economy

It is time to question where our carbon comes from. Urgent emissions and climate goals require technologies to re-use and recycle waste carbon into the fuels and chemicals essential for advancing society. These technologies must be deployed to benefit rural communities as well as traditional manufacturing centers. A new circular carbon model that includes waste carbon from agricultural residues will lead to a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient economy in India.

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