This Mad Scientist's Genetically Engineered "Bugs" Could Solve The World's Biggest Problems

Sean Simpson

Turning waste into energy, Kiwi entrepreneur and scientist Sean Simpson is a modern alchemist.

He’s the founder of an Auckland, New Zealand-based company called LanzaTech.

With long red hair and a quick, loud laugh, he’s a mad scientist for the good guys.

Simpson says that with the help of tiny, genetically-engineered “bugs,” LanzaTech can take industrial waste and turn it into usable fuel.

And while alchemy has always been something of a myth, LanzaTech’s process is already up and running.

Right now, it’s converting exhaust into ethanol at a steel mill outside Auckland.

Simpson’s first ambition is to export this process to China, where half the world’s steel is made and half the world’s steel is consumed.

His second, much loftier, goal is to create new bugs that will be able to convert the world’s most ubiquitous greenhouse gas, CO2, into something more useful.

Let’s not kid around: If Simpson can do that, he’ll be solving one of the world’s biggest problems.

To help achieve those missions, Simpson has raised a sack full of cash from Silicon Valley legend, Vinod Khosla.

He’s raising another round right now, too. He wants LanzaTech to be the rare multi-billion dollar tech firm based out of New Zealand.

During out recent trip down under, we stopped by LanzaTech to meet Simpson and his bugs.

Welcome to New Zealand. It's far away, but its seaports and airports give it direct access to China

LanzaTech is based in the office of a defunded government agency

One of its neighbours is RocketLab, which rumoured to be building handheld surveillance rockets for the US department of defence

Sweet enough digs, no?

This is LanzaTech founder and chief scientific officer Sean Simpson. He's a classic entrepreneur: energetic and irreverent

Here's the lab version of LanzaTech's steel mill exhaust to ethanol process. The exhaust is dissolved into that muck with microbes, which eat it, and then poop out ethanol.

Other than this shot, Simpson wouldn't let us photograph the equipment LanzaTech designed to do the same process at scale outside the lab.

With this equipment, LanzaTech is trying to convert greenhouse gas CO2 into something useful

Here's a sign you don't find in most startup offices

LanzaTech shared some photos of its tech in action at a Steel Mill outside Auckland

LanzaTech has a couple competitors: Coskata and Ineos.

This is the pilot plant, still. But Bao Steel in China should have something similar running soon.

Impressive stuff, right? But how do you GET to New Zealand to meet guys like Simpson?

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