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Bioreactor with Improved Methane Transfer

ARPA-E Award: 
Skokie, IL
Project Term: 
01/29/2014 to 02/28/2020
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Image of LanzaTech's technology
Critical Need: 

Natural gas can be found in abundance throughout the United States, and is often used for heating, cooking, and electrical power generation. Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, an energy-rich compound not widely used for transportation. Currently, there are no commercially viable biological approaches to convert methane into liquid fuel, and synthetic approaches are expensive and inefficient at small scales. To take advantage of the country's remote natural gas resources, such as off-shore methane, new biological processes that use special microorganisms called "biocatalysts" are needed to transform methane into liquid fuel. These small-scale processes could provide an environment advantage since they would be carbon neutral or better relative to traditional fuels.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

LanzaTech will combine methane fermentation expertise, experimental bioreactor characterization, as well as advanced simulation and modeling to develop a novel gas fermentation system that can significantly improve gas to liquid mass transfer, or the rate at which methane gas is delivered to a biocatalyst. This unique bioreactor concept seeks to efficiently transfer methane to microbial biocatalysts by reducing the energy demand required for high transfer rates. Although methane is a flammable gas, the new technology also maintains the safe operation necessary for a small-scale conversion process. This bioreactor design would significantly reduce capital and operating costs, enabling small-scale deployment of fuel production from remote natural gas sources. LanzaTech's new gas fermentation system could help produce liquid fuel at a cost of less than $2 per gallon of gasoline equivalent.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, LanzaTech's system will process large amounts of methane at a high rate, reducing the costs associated with methane conversion to enable small-scale deployment of natural gas conversion.


An improved bioconversion process could create cost-competitive liquid fuels significantly reducing demand for foreign oil.


This technology would allow for utilization of small-scale remote natural gas resources or methane and carbon rich gas residues for fuel production reducing harmful emissions associated with conventional fuel technologies.


Expanding U.S. natural gas resources via bioconversion to liquid fuels could contribute tens of billions of dollars to the nation's economy while reducing or stabilizing transport fuel prices.

Innovation Update: 

(As of December 2016) 
The LanzaTech team designed and built a new type of reactor that can optimize the geometry of the microbubble generator to reduce energy losses. The team’s technoeconomic assessment indicates that these equipment sizing improvements result in a reduction in costs that could move more of its projects into commercial viability. The next step is to build a demonstration plant at one-tenth scale and then construct and start up the first commercial unit. These first commercial units are expected to be commissioned as part of LanzaTech’s existing carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) fermentation processes used to recycle waste gases from industrial facilities. The improved bioreactor offers the potential for capital and operating cost savings over the current state-of-the-art, providing an opening for bio-recycling of waste gases in 25 separate chemical markets. 


The LanzaTech team’s microbubble reactor combines a novel device for microbubble formation with a reactor geometry and liquid circulation approach that dramatically increases gas mass transfer coefficients by nearly ten times above that in state-of-the-art gas liquid bioreactors. The design, which has been demonstrated at a 200L scale, can double the amount of gas transferred per unit of energy input compared to even the next best airlift reactor design. In order to test the reactor, Lanzatech used its well established CO fermenting organisms. The new reactor design increases the uptake rate of the microorganisms by 50% per unit reactor volume and doubles the biomass productivity versus the best reference system. Moreover, it reduces the necessary reactor volume by two thirds without having to increase the system pressure. This in turn lowers the energy requirement for gas compression, one of the main operating costs, by approximately 80%. 


For a detailed assessment of the LanzaTech project and impact, please click here.


ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Marc von Keitz
Project Contact: 
Dr. Derek Griffin
San Diego State University
Louisiana State University
University of California, San Diego
Michigan Technological University
CUNY Energy Institute
Release Date: