Bill Gates-backed startup builds a massive refinery to turn alcohol into jet fuel

Turning alcohol into jet fuel might be the way forward for making travel by air more sustainable and kinder for the planet.
Christopher McFadden

Bill Gates founded Breakthrough Energy and has recently announced that its first Catalyst project funding will come in the form of a $50 million grant to LanzaJet's Freedom Pines Fuels sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) plant in Soperton, Georgia.

Breakthrough Energy Catalyst is a unique program that brings together businesses and nonprofits to fund key first-of-its-kind commercial-scale projects that speed up the deployment of essential technologies.

“Breakthrough Energy Catalyst is a new way for the private sector to accelerate the clean energy transition by funding projects that will ensure essential climate solutions get to market on the timeline the world needs,” explains Rodi Guidero, Executive Director, Breakthrough Energy & Managing Partner, Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

“LanzaJet’s new sustainable aviation fuel plant could play a vital role in decarbonizing aviation while demonstrating how the jobs and businesses of the clean energy economy can power communities. We’re grateful to Catalyst’s partners, who understand climate leadership means supporting the technologies that will eliminate emissions and that solving our climate challenges will require nothing less than mobilizing the world’s economic engine to build a net-zero future,” he added.

Bill Gates-backed startup builds a massive refinery to turn alcohol into jet fuel
Image of LanjaJet's pioneer AtJ fuel plant.

LanzaJet's Freedom Pines Fuels project will be the company's first commercial-scale SAF plant. It will also be the first plant in the world to make alcohol-to-jet SAF, which it is hoped could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 70% compared to fossil jet fuel. The project is set to be finished in 2023.

This is potentially a big deal as about 2 percent to 3 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from aviation annually. Since sustainable aviation fuels are "drop-in" fuels, they are an essential way to quickly reduce carbon emissions from aviation using the planes already in use worldwide.

Once it is fully running, this plant will be a crucial part of increasing SAF production and bringing sustainable fuels that are less expensive to the market. The plant is expected to make 9 million gallons of SAF and 1 million gallons of renewable diesel yearly.

This is about twice as much SAF as is currently made in the U.S. LanzaJet's technology, will be able to be used on a much larger scale in the U.S. and worldwide after the plant is built. Other projects are already being planned in North America, Europe, and Asia that would produce more than a billion gallons of SAF each year.

Pioneer green projects are notoriously tricky to raise cheap capital on

First-of-its-kind projects for new technologies often have trouble getting cheap capital because they have high "green premiums" and often run into problems and costs they didn't expect, especially in the current economic climate. Catalyst funding can reduce the risk of future investments and speed up the spread of clean technologies by giving money to these early commercial facilities.

In this case, the Catalyst grant helped Freedom Pines Fuels fill a funding gap. This will allow the plant to keep its current development schedule.

Notably, the grant will also encourage more innovation at SAF by helping to create a new market for ethanol from sustainable sources that can be scaled up and has low carbon emissions. This will happen by setting the expectation that the plant will switch to second-generation ethanol, including ethanol made from waste, by the end of its fifth year.

This change will add to what LanzaJet is already doing to build SAF plants in the U.K. that use second-generation ethanol and make strategic partnerships to speed up the development of advanced fuel, which is in short supply on the market right now.

“LanzaJet is grounded in innovation, and we work every day with a sense of urgency to address our global climate challenge,” explains Jimmy Samartzis, LanzaJet CEO.

“To maximize our impact and scale our technology to deliver significant quantities of sustainable aviation fuel worldwide, partnerships matter. We have a real opportunity on our doorstep to significantly scale up and globally deploy our technology, and we wouldn’t be able to build this plant as quickly or affordably without Breakthrough Energy’s Catalyst grant, which reduced our total cost of capital and is critical to reducing emissions and accelerating the pace of bringing SAF to the global market,” he added.

SAF is made from various low-carbon, sustainable feedstocks, such as agricultural waste, municipal solid waste, energy crops, or carbon captured from industrial processes or ambient air. It can be used in place of traditional jet fuel and is compatible with existing aircraft and infrastructure.

Compared to traditional fuel made from crude oil, SAF can reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by a lot over its entire lifecycle. It can also significantly improve local air quality by reducing particulate matter pollutants.

LanzaJet's Freedom Pines Fuels plant has already been helped by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund, and LanzaJet shareholders Mitsui & Co., Suncor Energy, LanzaTech, British Airways, and Shell. The Catalyst grant from Breakthrough Energy is a welcome addition to the project and will help significantly to get it up and running as soon as possible.

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