A Start-Up Converts GHG Into A Biodegradable Plastic Substitute

Credit: Ant Rozetsky/Unsplash

We have learned through the long-running fight against climate change that greenhouse gases, which are produced when fossil fuels are burned, ought to be either captured, taxed, or completely eliminated. However, 20 years ago, businessmen Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel had a different perspective on carbon and considered it a potential component of goods we use every day, as reported by Fortune.

Biodegradable replacement

Now, their Huntington Beach, California, company Newlight Technologies is using a technique that builds on the one used by bacteria to devour methane escaping from the ocean floor to transform greenhouse gas into a biodegradable replacement for plastic (and consume oil spills such as the Deepwater Horizon). More than 50 million products have been made with the company’s meltable bioplastic, known as AirCarbon, including sunglasses, wallets, and flatware for Shake Shack. Soon, Nike and Sumitomo products will also employ this material. A 15-year agreement to open a new commercial AirCarbon reactor in Ohio was inked by Newlight, which has raised more than $106 million and will enable it to produce hundreds of millions more goods, in July.

“If you can use greenhouse gas as a resource to make useful products then you can create a market-driven, consumer-driven solution to this challenge,” Herrema says. “The potential scalability of that concept, where we’re not talking about subsidization or taxation, but in fact, just commercial manufacturing was immensely compelling to us.”

Microbe hunting

Though not simple to carry out, the idea was persuasive.

Methanotrophs, the methane-eating bacteria that convert gas into PHB, a compostable and biodegradable bioplastic, were first identified about a century ago and are the foundation of Newlight. However, it had not yet been done because producing polymers from methane on an industrial basis was so much more expensive than producing them from oil.

Herrema and Kimmel spent years searching the beaches and estuaries of California for a naturally occurring methanotroph that carried out the methane metabolisation process at high yields in order to reduce expenses.

“Those were long years trying to try to get this thing off the ground,” says Herrema, 40.

Even after eventually locating the ideal microorganisms, now referred to as “Biocatalyst 9X,” Newlight continued to operate in complete silence—it didn’t even have a website for the first nine years—while Herrema and Kimmel improved the extraction, purification, and production procedure.

The first modest commercial-scale AirCarbon reactor, where Newlight extracts bioplastic from methane taken from dairy farms to manufacturing goods on a contract basis, didn’t begin operating until August 2013.

“It took us about 10 years to figure out the technology to basically replicate what was happening in the ocean, do it on land, do it at scale,” Herrema says.

The fundamental procedure of Newlight is comparable to winemaking. The microorganisms in Newlight’s mixture transform air, methane, or CO2 and hydrogen into carbon-storing PHB rather than yeast converting sugar into alcohol. According to Herrema, they achieve this by forming a “slice of the ocean.” Saltwater is kept in a conversion reactor, which resembles a massive steel wine tank that has been poked with tubes. Methane (or CO2 and hydrogen) is pumped in together with air once the microbial biocatalyst has been injected.

The bacteria used by Newlight extract the oxygen from the air and the carbon and hydrogen from the methane, then combine them inside the bugs’ cells to form PHB molecules, which can be thought of as microbial muscle. After PHB has been extracted, purified, processed, and made into AirCarbon pellets, it is prepared to be melted into commonplace items made of conventional synthetic plastics, such as forks and eyeglass frames.

Forks to leather

As soon as Newlight began contract manufacturing at its first facility, it looked into employing AirCarbon on a wide range of goods. Virgin phone cases, Dell delivery bags, and KI seats were made with AirCarbon. By 2015, it collaborated on AirCarbon projects with more than 60 Fortune 500 organisations. Herrema and I had a conversation about the AirCarbon products he uses on a daily basis, including his wallet (made of synthetic AirCarbon leather), his sunglasses, and the bioplastic silverware he uses for meals.

At the company’s location in Huntington Beach, California, Newlight subsequently opened Eagle 3, its first fully integrated commercial scale operation, which began shipping goods in early 2021. The company, which had a larger but still constrained capacity, decided to concentrate on three heavily carbon-emitting industries—food products, fashion, and automobiles—and collaborate with a number of Fortune 500 and Global 500 companies, including Sysco, Disney, US Foods, Nike, Sumitomo, H&M, and others.

Newlight most recently disclosed a partnership with CNX Resources Corporation. The Pittsburgh-based natural gas firm will invest in Newlight and provide Newlight with the licence to use methane emissions collected at a Virginia coal mine in a second commercial AirCarbon facility (Eagle 4) near Hannibal, Ohio.

Newlight declined to share its valuation.

“There are like 500 active mines and only four or five have a capture system in place.”

Rystad Energy estimates that by 2050 the world will need to use carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technology to remove 8 gigatons of carbon a year, says Rystad Energy’s head of CCUS research, Yvonne Lam.

Development projects should raise that figure to 220 megatons a year by 2030.

Not surprisingly, the IEA says the necessary rollout of CCUS is “not on track.”

“I think the partnership between CNX and Newlight is an example of how to make sure all 500 mines have a capture system in place and prevent this gas from going into the atmosphere,” Srivastava says.

Because AirCarbon products are made using renewable energy and greenhouse gas and sequester or destroy more greenhouse gasses than they release, they are certified carbon negative by SCS Global Services and Carbon Trust, which measure carbon footprints.

“If it’s composted or decomposes, then the end fate of the CO2 is to make it back into the air and you’re just reducing the demand for raw material to produce those kinds of materials,” says Lam.

“Until we have better, cheaper technology to lock carbon underground, using consumer goods to temporarily sequester the emission is a good option, he says.

I think these biological options are actually exceedingly useful.

We just shouldn’t kid ourselves that they are permanent.”

For Herrema, the market-driven purist who has called AirCarbon “one part Atlas Shrugged and one part An Inconvenient Truth, this deal is one worth making.”


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Source: Fortune