Tennessee lab turns pollution into Zara dress and Lululemon fabric

What if you could capture pollution from a chimney and turn it into a polyester dress, jet fuel, or high-end running shoes? It’s something Oak Ridge National Lab scientists have been working on and it’s already hitting stores.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory and LanzaTech, a biotechnology company, have created a synthetic bacteria that eats industrial pollution and secretes useful chemicals as waste.

These chemicals can then be made into a variety of products like shoes, fuel, fabric, and plastic containers.

“Once you have short carbon chains, your ethanol chains, your isopropanol chains, you can take them and turn them into anything,” said Timothy Tschaplinski, lead biodesign and systems biology for Oak Ridge National Lab. “Now that’s not from fossil fuels.”

Generally, plastic, synthetic fabric, dye and fuel require basic chemicals derived from fossil fuels. Recovering residual carbon reduces the need for fossil fuels throughout the supply chain.

Brands like On running shoes are already trying to make the switch, restructuring products from pollution-derived carbon.

“It’s a win-win situation,” On’s co-founder and co-executive chairman Caspar Coppetti said in a statement. “We capture emissions before they pollute our atmosphere and at the same time move away from fossil materials.”

Turn trash into shoes

The goal of Oak Ridge’s technology is to create a suite of bacterial strains that can be grown in parallel reactors, all feeding on the same pollution to create different base chemicals. The new strain is a proof of concept for a larger business model where nothing goes to waste.

“It could be any type of waste, plastic waste, municipal waste, agricultural waste,” said Michael Koepke, vice president of synthetic biology at LanzaTech. He explained that as long as waste can be converted into gas, scientists can convert it into a useful chemical. “That way we’re essentially closing the circle…we can capture CO2 again and bring it into the circle.”

So far, LanzaTech has used its bioreactors to make about 30 million gallons of ethanol from carbon monoxide pollution from steel mills. The ethanol produced by these reactors has been transformed into various consumer products.

A fabric sample developed by LanzaTech and Lululemon from ethanol recovered from steel mills.

On, a premium athletic shoe brand, recently began working with LanzaTech to manufacture shoes from pollution-derived carbon. Knox News was told this was uncharted territory for them.

“Usually shoe brands buy something off-the-shelf,” said Nils Alstrogge, head of innovation technology at On. “But what we are doing now is trying to change the source of raw materials.”

Alstrogge said the intriguing thing about On is making sure the plastics in the running shoes don’t come from fossil fuels.

“We know the industry has to change and now we have the opportunity,” Alstrogge said. “We don’t want to react at the end. We want to initiate it from the beginning.”

LanzaTech intends to expand into new chemicals and sources of pollution, with the new synthetic bacterial strain.

Oak Ridge National Lab will continue to work with the company on a major project to obtain a 100% effective strain of bacteria for ethanol fermentation. Koepke credits Oak Ridge’s continued collaboration for making the venture possible.

“Oak Ridge has some very unique capabilities in terms of genomics and omics technologies,” Koepke said. “Without Oak Ridge’s expertise and funding, we wouldn’t have developed (this technology) and we wouldn’t have put this process in place.”

How it works?

The process actively prevents greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. The bacteria are grown in bioreactors connected to industrial facilities such as steel mills or chemical plants. Exhaust gases from the factory are pumped into the reactor where bacteria ferment the pollution, converting it to ethanol or isopropanol and acetone.

In other words, bacteria eat pollution and excrete useful chemicals as waste.

Useful chemicals are purified from the reactor and shipped to manufacturers for use in various products. Lululemon, Zara, British Airlines and Unilever have used the pollution collected by LanzaTech to make fabric, dresses and plastic.

“We operate two commercial units that have already produced more than 30 million gallons of ethanol from heavy industry emissions,” Koepke said. “It’s already mitigated tons of CO2.”

If all goes according to plan, more consumer products will be made from carbon captured and recycled from pollution. All in all, this is a benefit for the environment. Carbon waste is not just about climate change. The wrong kind of carbonaceous chemicals in the environment can cause human and wildlife health issues.

Koepke said the company also hopes to expand into landfill gas and chemical plant waste capture. Bioreactors can be installed in any industrial facility with waste gases.

Bacteria evolved to eat carbon

Billions of years ago, when the Earth was still young, bacteria began to evolve. At the time, photosynthesis, the making of food using energy from the sun, had yet to emerge. The bacteria fed on the energy of chemicals from hydrothermal vents and dissolved carbon chemicals.

For decades, scientists have searched for bacteria that can make ethanol or other useful chemicals from carbon monoxide. Bacteria have evolved in so many different niches that at least one species was thought to exist. Eventually, the scientists compiled a library of different bacterial species with different abilities.

Many of these strains were collected during World War II as part of the US government’s research into alternative fuel sources for warfare.

The new synthetic bacterium is a strain of Clostridium autoethanogenum (C. auto), an oxygen-hating species that was first discovered in rabbit feces. The bacterium ferments carbon monoxide and converts it to ethanol as a natural part of its metabolism.

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