3 minute read 30 Sep 2020
Sean Simpson examines samples in the lab

Next up: Sean Simpson – turning industrial waste into fuel

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EY Global

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

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3 minute read 30 Sep 2020

Some solutions come from the most unlikely sources. Meet the scientist entrepreneur building a better working world from rabbit droppings.

EY presents: Next up, a series showcasing innovators who are building a better working world through new technology and big ideas.

Meet Sean

One day, a rabbit did what rabbits do every day: ate some food, digested it, and excreted the waste product. Then, it hopped off on to other business. But inside the droppings it left behind something extremely valuable – microbes. 

These particular rabbit gut bacteria were identified, processed, and their details recorded in a scientific database. Then, as the scientist who’d discovered them saw no obvious application for them, they were forgotten about.

Some years later in New Zealand, Dr. Sean Simpson was made redundant from a company which was attempting to turn wood waste into fuel. That model had failed, and with it the company, but Sean remained fascinated with the concept: what if industrial by-products didn’t have to be useless? What if pollution could be turned into fuel?

This idea sent him on a quest, trawling scientific journals to see if there was anything out there that would suit his purpose. He was a man in search of his light-bulb moment – and that came in the form of this description of rabbit gut bacteria in the scientific database. The idea for the world’s first commercial "waste gas to ethanol" business was born.

Dr. Sean Simpson at work in the lab

“We need new ways to make sustainable fuels that are not based on food or crops, that don’t impact the land and are affordable.”

Dr. Sean Simpson, Co-founder LanzaTech
The big idea

The gut bacteria work by consuming and fermenting waste gases, and turning them into ethanol. In the lab, Sean and his team simulated the bacteria to evolve in a way that would survive the extreme conditions of industrial waste processes.

The solution has multiple benefits: the industrial sector can reduce its carbon emissions, but also generate revenue by selling the ethanol the bacteria creates. This in turn can then be further refined to produce fuel, plastics and other useful industrial chemicals.

Global fuel needs

35%

of global transport fuel needs could be provided by LanzaTech process

The impact

Sean co-founded LanzaTech with the late Richard Foster in New Zealand in 2005. After relocating to the US, in 2010, they brought on board Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, a chemist veteran of the aviation industry’s experiments with biofuel and now LanzaTech CEO, to help commercialize the concept.

It’s estimated that LanzaTech’s solution could meet 35% of the world’s transport fuel needs – the equivalent of 7% of total CO2 emissions. 1And the company continues to grow – 2019 saw it close Series E funding.

What inspiration can we draw from Sean’s innovation?

LanzaTech’s story not only provides a valuable lesson in the importance of perseverance and perspective in identifying business opportunities, but also the power of innovative thinking. LanzaTech’s stroke of insight was not only finding a novel technical solution – in this case, bacteria from rabbit droppings – that would produce the essential fuel outputs but making sure the process would be commercially scalable. The world would certainly benefit from more of this line of thinking.

In these turbulent times, disruptions to business and our way of life could come from anywhere – COVID-19 pandemic, the environment, competition, government policy, and geopolitical forces. These forces are not only difficult to predict, but their pace only seems to be increasing.  Amid this instability, change is the only certainty. An organization’s ability to survive and thrive is dependent on its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. 

“Companies that succeed in their ability to adapt to disruption all have one thing in common: innovation. They are methodical about it. It’s baked into all areas and levels of the organization. It’s the cornerstone of their culture – even their identity,” according to Randy Miller, EY Global Advanced Manufacturing & Mobility Leader. “A systematic approach to innovation allows you to challenge conventional thinking and break through existing paradigms. This is particularly critical in an era where disruption is the new normal.”

Closing the loop on sustainability

Sustainability is a business imperative across all industries. The waste that as a society we create whether it be through the burning of fossil or single-use design of most consumer products is having adverse effects on our environment to the point where it’s become an existential threat. It is one of the most pressing challenges humankind has to solve, and thus far, it has proved to be one of the most daunting.

But what if we could plan our products so they don’t end up as waste? What if they, too, could take on a second useful life?

The circular economy is an economic system aimed at doing just that: by eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. At its heart, it embodies a fundamental shift in how we manage our use of products and materials. Rather than the current single use, or “take-make-waste model,” the aim is to keep resources and their value in the loop and to rethink future business models befitting a more sustainable society. A popular example is turning food oil waste into biofuel. But what if the manufacturer extended its product lifecycle so that it didn’t merely end in a restaurant’s fryolator, but in the fuel tank of a jumbo jet? Not only would it help the economy, but it could prove to be a lucrative business opportunity. 

These new opportunities for reducing waste, and the use of raw and rare materials, are extensive. The Global Commission on Economy and Climate says that a new climate economy, based in part on circular economy principles, could deliver at least US$26t in economic benefits by 2030, compared with business as usual.

As technology advances, opportunities to adopt circular economy practices to repurpose and regenerate within the energy and resource industry will only increase. Those companies that hesitate to adopt new circular models may not only miss out on opportunities to create value, but may also find their ability to operate their core business impacted.

Summary

EY Presents: Next up a series of innovative individuals and companies who are helping to build a better working world. Dr. Sean Simpson asked what if industrial by-products didn’t have to be useless? What if pollution could be turned into fuel? From this, the idea for the world’s first commercial “waste gas to ethanol” business was born.

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EY Global

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Contributors