If you’d like to find out whether Jennifer Holmgren can do something, the quickest way is to tell her she can’t.
The Colombian-born chemist started her career in the late 1980s, in a lab in Des Plaines, Illinois, working for a company called UOP that would later be acquired by Honeywell. UOP developed technology for the petroleum and petrochemical industries, and after becoming the company’s director of exploratory research in 2002, Holmgren began pitching the idea of bio-based chemicals and fuels. Given this was a company squarely focused on the fossil fuel industry, she faced plenty of internal pushback from colleagues who thought the whole idea of alternative fuels was something of a joke. Still, by 2006, she’d convinced the higher-ups to create, and let her lead, a renewable energy and chemical division.
It wasn’t long before Holmgren’s research caught the attention of the U.S. military, and she and her team began developing aviation biofuels for military jets using a variety of feedstocks, including animal fats, algae and camelina, a seed similar to flax. Again, Holmgren faced skepticism from her colleagues — many didn’t believe planes would fly on biofuels. But by 2010, not only were the naysayers eating their words, they were eating the Green Hornet’s camelina-flavored dust. During an Earth Day demonstration, the Navy flew the fighter jet on a 50-50 blend of conventional jet fuel and camelina oil-based kerosene. At supersonic speeds.
Given the heights she’d soared to, it came as something of a shock to the people around her when Holmgren left UOP Honeywell that year to become the first CEO of a little-known New Zealand startup called LanzaTech. Sean Simpson, the company’s co-founder and driving force, had made a game-changing discovery: a microbe that ingests greenhouse gases and produces ethanol. Realizing the various limitations of other feedstocks, Holmgren saw the company’s technology as a potential climate solution. LanzaTech, on the lookout for a new home base as well as a CEO, moved to the Chicago area where Holmgren lived, and they went to work developing technologies that turn waste gases — then primarily from the smokestacks of steel mills — into chemicals and jet fuel.
I thought to myself, 'I'm looking at a technology that if it is successful — and it wasn't a given that it would be — can change everything.'
Over the 11-odd years since, LanzaTech has grown into a carbon recycling powerhouse. The company’s process converts carbon waste from industrial smokestacks, agriculture and landfills into ethanol used by its partners to make a whole slew of products, including dishwashing liquid for Unilever, household cleaners and plastic packaging for Mibelle, perfume for COTY, and dresses for Zara. And just last week the company said it plans to go public by merging with special purpose acquisition company AMCI Acquisition Corp II, in a deal that values LanzaTech at $2.2 billion.
What LanzaTech no longer does within its own operations is make jet fuel. That’s because, in 2020, Holmgren made the decision to spin out the fuels division, her baby and arguably the company’s crown jewel, to form LanzaJet. Financed in part by a recent $50 million investment from the Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund, LanzaJet is building its first commercial production plant, in Soperton, Georgia, and expects the facility to begin operations in 2023.
Over the course of her career, Holmgren, 61, has received numerous accolades for her work, both as a scientist and as a chief executive. LanzaTech’s chief sustainability officer, Freya Burton, describes her boss as supportive and empathetic, yet passionate and driven, characteristics that inspire dedication and loyalty among her staff.
But Holmgren’s true superpower just may be her unflinching ability to surprise people. She has a penchant for taking unexpected risks. And she regularly proves anyone who doubts her wrong. She is, in short, a soft-spoken, introverted, Latina scientist who has managed to thrive in the male-dominated worlds of science and business, and to do so on her own terms.
I recently spoke with Holmgren about her journey, the evolution of alternative aviation fuels and what she sees for the future of renewable jet fuel, carbon recycling and herself. The following interview, which took place before the merger announcement, has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more of the story, tune into episode 308 of the GreenBiz 350 podcast. You’ll be surprised.
CJ Clouse: I wanted to start by asking you about your background and influences. What got you interested in science?
Holmgren: I was 9 years old when man landed on the moon in July 1969, and I'd been reading about the U.S. Space program. I remember always waiting for my uncle to come home with the newspaper and opening it up to an update of the Apollo program, tossing it on the floor and just leaning forward. And then, after we came to the U.S., I had these amazing high school teachers, my math teacher, my chemistry teacher, my physics teacher. And I just went crazy; I fell in love with science and really was encouraged by them to pursue it. So I’m the product of the United States public school system. I became who I am today because of them.
Clouse: What about your family? Were they excited about the prospect of you becoming a scientist? Or did they want you to pursue a career or a life that was more common for women at the time?
Holmgren: I'm very lucky because I grew up in a family where my parents supported my every whim, and science was my whim. They were very supportive of me going to college, getting a Ph.D. I was always a little different, so I don’t think it was unexpected for me to do something a little different.
Clouse: Which scientific field did you pursue at university?
Holmgren: So, I'm a chemist. I went to Harvey Mudd College, which is mostly an engineering and science school in California. It's a great school, a small private university. I got my chemistry degree there. And I became a Holmgren there. I married the love of my life, who's a physicist. Then we went to grad school together at the University of Illinois. I got a Ph.D. in chemistry; he got one in physics.
Clouse: Let’s talk a bit about your career at UOP Honeywell. Is that where your interest in alternative fuels started? And from what I understand, you had to push to even have that renewable energy and chemicals division created, is that right?
Holmgren: Yes, I went from being a lab chemist to managing a lot of the early-stage R&D. And that included what we used to call exploratory and fundamental research. My job was to get the company into new areas, and what I started to focus on was alternative feedstocks, other than petroleum. So first we were doing work with natural gas, and then we started looking at biology. And at that time, there were very few people talking about climate change. The energy transition was not a thing, and, frankly, the only alternative that people could imagine was natural gas. … [Then in 2005] I got a phone call from a program manager at DARPA [the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], and I didn't know him, but he said, "Jennifer, I hear you're working on renewable diesel, can you make renewable jet fuel?" And everybody said, "You're never going to fly on an alternative aviation fuel. It's just not going to happen." … So he set down the challenge to develop a drop-in jet fuel, and we started working on that in 2006, and by 2010, we had done it. On Earth Day 2010, we flew the Green Hornet. It went supersonic on alternative aviation fuel. And I remember thinking to myself: In less than five years, we went from "it can't be done" to flying a supersonic jet.
Clouse: Wow, that’s pretty incredible.
Holmgren: It shows you that everything people say can't be done, can be done.
Clouse: So you’re doing this groundbreaking work at UOP Honeywell, and LanzaTech, this little startup in New Zealand, calls you. What was it about the company or the opportunity that made you leave the security of your job and take a chance on this young company?
Holmgren: They had already started doing work on a pilot scale, and Sean [Simpson], the founder, and Vinod Khosla, the largest investor, had decided they needed a CEO. And I had developed some really exciting technologies at UOP Honeywell, but it used to keep me up at night because the petroleum industry uses a hundred million barrels of petroleum every day. A hundred million barrels. And we measure the production of alternative fuels in tens of millions of gallons a year. So there's a massive disconnect between what you can do with traditional biological feedstocks and the scale and scope of everything we use today made from fossil fuels. And it used to bother me because we definitely can grow plants to make biofuels, but not at that level. You're going to run into a land issue, a food issue, a water issue. And I kept wondering how we were going to get to scale. So when I got introduced to LanzaTech, here was a company that used carbon monoxide, and my Ph.D. thesis was on using carbon monoxide and hydrogen to make products. And I thought, holy s---. If this works, it's not just a concept that will work with a steel mill that emits carbon monoxide, this will work with any off gas, from a steel mill or a refinery. It will work with gasified solids. It will work with everything. And I thought to myself, I'm looking at a technology that if it is successful — and it wasn't a given that it would be — can change everything. Here's something that can get to scale. So I thought, I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to figure out if this works. And so I did.
Clouse: Can you explain the process? How are greenhouse gases converted into ethanol?
Holmgren: So you're familiar with the fermentation of sugar to make beer, right? Instead of sugar, we ferment three critical gases: carbon monoxide; carbon dioxide; and hydrogen. And we have a bacteria that likes to eat that stuff, and what it produces from that is ethanol. We recover the ethanol, and we make stuff with it. So, most people think, "OK, what can we do with ethanol? We can put it in gasoline." But very early on, we knew that the future was not in gasoline-powered cars. You could see that in 2010. So the future had to be in something else. What else can I do with ethanol? Well, what is the biggest chemical feedstock used today? It's ethylene. Basically everything you use, your polyester, your bottles, your cosmetics, your shoes, they all start life as ethylene. And ethanol to ethylene, that's one easy step. So we started to develop the ability to make ethylene from waste ethanol and then use that ethylene to make the products we use in our daily lives.
Clouse: And that’s how you make Zara dresses.
Holmgren: The beauty of it is, nobody had ever imagined that you could take steel mill gas and make a Zara dress from it. But if you divide the world into three parts: fossil fuels get used for energy production; they get used to make fuels; and they get used to make products. Then you start to think, "OK, we already know how to produce power with renewables, let solar and wind do that." And we don't need to make fuels for cars because cars are going to be electric. But we do need to make jet fuel. It's going to be a long time before you can put a battery on a plane and have it run on solar and get across the Atlantic or the Pacific. So we said, let’s make jet fuel. Then there's that other part, the stuff we use every day, which has to have carbon, so we focus on that too.
Clouse: In 2020, you spun out the aviation fuels division of the company and formed LanzaJet. What was behind the decision to do that?
Holmgren: We think [alternative] jet fuel is really an important sector, and we wanted it to move faster, like really fast. So we invited strategic investors, companies like Mitsui, Suncor, Shell, British Airways to join us in scaling up and doing it quickly. You've probably already figured out that aviation is my first love. My father worked for an airline. We developed aviation fuel when I was at UOP Honeywell. And we did it again at LanzaTech. I think aviation’s license to operate will depend on their ability to reduce their carbon emissions, and that social license and my love for the industry says, "We've got to make this go fast. We've got to make this work. This is really important." So LanzaJet is building a 10-million-gallon-a-year plant. Today, there's barely 30 million gallons per year of sustainable aviation fuel being produced. So 10 million is going to be a significant chunk, and that plant should be up and running at the beginning of next year. That's really exciting. These investors have also said, ‘If you meet the KPIs at that scale, we're going to build bigger commercial plants. So we're on a path to having hundreds of millions of gallons of production capacity by the middle of this decade.
We don't need any more carbon. So I'm not worried about running out of CO or CO2 or any of these gases. And boy, if we do, that will be a good day.
Clouse: Wow, that soon?
Holmgren: Oh yeah, we're on it. We're already working on some of those plants, doing some of the feasibility work. Look at Suncor’s statements about scaling aviation fuel. Look at Shell, which has partnered with us on a project in Sweden to take CO2 and hydrogen and make jet fuel. That's happening with Vattenfall, a large power company. They're all committed to building plants, and they're on a schedule to build them by 2025, 2026. Then there'll be hundreds of millions of gallons.
Clouse: Do you see planes being able to fly on 100 percent renewable fuel at some point?
Holmgren: Well, you see the engine companies and the airplane manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, working on getting to 100 percent. Today, we’re certified up to 50 percent, and they're trying to get to 100. But the problem is not the equipment. The problem is how do we get to 100 billion gallons of jet fuel, when today we're in the 20 to 30 million range. So right now what we need to do is build production faster.
Clouse: This last question falls under the "good problem to have" category. So you’re capturing waste CO2 that’s produced by burning fossil fuels, and you’re making aviation fuel from it. If the goal is to stop burning fossil fuels, and we do finally, hopefully stop at some point, will the waste CO2 run out? And if it does, what will airplanes fly on?
Holmgren: First, we can also get [CO2] from gasified municipal solid waste. We've been doing a project in Japan. If you take municipal solid waste and you partially combust it, you gasify it, you get the same gases. We're also doing a project in India where we're using gasified waste biomass that normally gets burnt in the field. So, biomass residues, agriculture residues, we'll get there by harnessing all of these different waste feed stocks. CJ, there is more than enough carbon locked above ground in all of this waste to make everything we need. We don't need any more carbon. So I'm not worried about running out of CO or CO2 or any of these gases. And boy, if we do, that will be a good day.