Michael Köpke on Synthetic Biology and Carbon-Negative Biomanufacturing

31/32   in the series Industry Interviews

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by LanzaTech and reflects their views, opinions, and insights.

The Metabolic Engineering Conference is the world-leading conference to share developments and achievements in the field. The conference enables participants to collectively explore how developments in metabolic engineering can advance diverse sectors across agriculture, biomanufacturing, medicine, and more.

Michael Köpke gave a keynote at the Metabolic Engineering 15 in Singapore to speak about the work of LanzaTech. LanzaTech’s groundbreaking carbon capture and utilization technology transform carbon emissions from industry and convert them into the chemical building blocks to make everything from sustainable aviation fuel to yoga pants. By capturing and reusing carbon emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, LanzaTech is enabling a future in which consumers can continue using indispensable products but with a significantly lower carbon footprint.

I spoke with Michael about his work with LanzaTech.

What specifically did you talk about at the conference?

Over the past 18+ years LanzaTech has developed a commercial gas fermentation process to capture waste carbon, such as emissions from a steel mill, into the building blocks commonly used in the manufacturing of everyday materials, such as rubber, plastics, and synthetic fibers. These materials form the building blocks for consumer products such as clothing, packaging, household goods, and more.

In my talk, I provided a walk-through of the tools and capabilities LanzaTech has developed in order to successfully commercialize the technology and gave examples of how we apply these tools for metabolic engineering to optimize efficiency, diversify the product spectrum of our process, and enable carbon-negative biomanufacturing. When we started, no genetic tools or efficient bioreactor systems existed for the carbon-fixing microbes we use at LanzaTech.

Today, we have developed a comprehensive genetic toolbox and the ability to generate thousands of anaerobic strains in our Biofoundry. Through these capabilities we have designed and implemented over 500 metabolic pathways, leading to direct production of over 100 molecules. We also have developed a range of predictive models and scaled up the process to bioreactors greater than half a million liters, with an IP portfolio of over 1300 patents.

What was the message your audience left with?

I titled my talk “The carbon revolution: Scaling circularity to replace fossil oil.” Fossil carbon is in nearly everything we use in our daily lives, but virgin fossil carbon use is not sustainable, given the current understanding of the impact of extracted, emitted, and waste carbon on our environment, climate, and vulnerable populations. To achieve our climate goals and mitigate a climate catastrophe, a large-scale, robust, rapid, and sustained effort must be made to re-tool our entire carbon economy.

The world has enough carbon above the ground to make the things we need, and waste is an excellent, abundant, and low-cost feedstock and key to creating a circular economy. Biological systems, being inherently flexible and capable of processing chaotic input streams, are uniquely suited for this challenge, allowing for access to low cost, regional feedstocks. This includes industrial off-gases, agricultural residues, and municipal waste.

CO2 with the addition of green H2 can make an unlimited supply of sustainable products, while synthetic biology and metabolic engineering allow us to make the building blocks we need. Imagine polyester for a dress made from recycled carbon from a steel mill. This is not science fiction, it’s happening commercially today with LanzaTech’s technology. Global consumer brands are already using recycled carbon chemicals in their supply chain enabled by biotechnology.

How do you envision industrial biotechnology advancing some of the Grand Challenges in engineering and society (sustainability, health, etc.)?

Biology can do things no human-made technology is capable of, and I firmly believe that industrial biotechnology has immense potential to play a key role in solving some of society’s most pressing issues. We are already seeing the impact of biotechnology in medicine and agriculture. Think about biologics, alternative meats, sustainable fertilizers, and, of course, vaccines created to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic response has shown what is possible with industry, academia, and government working closely together on the same problem, and I would like to see the same for climate.

One such effort is the Engineering Biology Research Consortium that recently released a technical roadmap for Engineering Biology for Climate and Sustainability by over 90 scientists and experts. At LanzaTech, we believe that industrial biotechnology has the power to bend the carbon curve and create a circular economy. We’re focused on biomanufacturing high-volume commodity chemicals that underpin our material economy. With three commercial plants in operation today and an additional three anticipated to launch before the end of the year, LanzaTech has abated over 275,000 tons of CO2 and produced over 54 million gallons of ethanol to date. We are on the road to abating gigatons of carbon!

The Metabolic Engineering 15 conference was held in Singapore from June 11–15, 2023. Learn more.

Michael Köpke

Dr. Michael Köpke is the VP Synthetic Biology at LanzaTech, a company that captures carbon and transform it into sustainable products. Read more.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by LanzaTech and reflects their views, opinions, and insights