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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Not Magic, Science:
Startup Creating Plastic Out of Thin Air

We’re hearing more and more often about inventive new ways companies are turning waste into valuable resources — from turning everything from CO2 and methane gases to human and food waste into fuels, and plastic into bacteria-battling “ninja polymers.” This week USA Today explored another breakthrough — a process that extracts carbon molecules from methane gas and turns them into plastic.

California-based startup Newlight Technologies is using captured methane gas from dairy farms and turning it into AirCarbon, a durable and versatile plastic that can be used in everything from furniture and food containers to auto parts. According to the article, AirCarbon removes more carbon from the atmosphere than its manufacturing emits, making it a carbon-negative material. Already in the works? AirCarbon chairs from furniture maker KI and cell phone cases for Virgin Mobile are expected to arrive sometime this year.

"I wish I had been smart enough to figure this out," William Dowd, former global director of industrial biotech research and development at Dow Chemical, told USA Today. "I was astounded by what they were able to do."

Newlight co-founder Mark Herrema said he got the idea after reading about the rise in methane emissions from dairy farms and pondered possible uses for it. Despite the fact that scientists had spent decades trying to find cost-effective ways to capture carbon and use it to make plastic, Herrema and longtime friend Kenton Kimmel, a biomedical engineering student at Northwestern, spent the next few years developing “a ten-times more efficient bio-catalyst,” which liquefies the gas, removes the carbon and rearranges it into a long chain plastic molecule.

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According to Newlight’s website, AirCarbon is a naturally biodegradable polyester that can be recycled multiple times, and can be formulated into both biodegradable and non-biodegradable grades according to the durability and carbon-capture needs of a given application.

While Dowd goes on to say the production of AirCarbon — which is similar to polypropylene and could be a cheaper alternative — likely can’t happen on a large enough scale to have a significant impact on climate change, Brent Ehrlich, products editor of BuildingGreen, is quoted as saying the material could replace a lot of oil-based plastic, which could potentially add up.


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