AirCarbon - carbon negative plastic

Newlight has developed a technology that captures greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to make plastic. A "carbon-negative" alternative to plastics made from fossil fuels.

While reading an article on the increase in methane emissions from dairy farming Mark Herrema, a student at Princeton University, had an idea: What about using greenhouse gases as a resource – like plants do every day? What if the carbon already in the air were recovered to make plastic? After all, what is plastic made of but carbon atoms?

After ten years’ research, Mark Herrema and his partner - and childhood friend - Kenton Kimmel founded Newlight Technologies in California in 2003. They think they have found THE solution to replacing standard plastic with a new material - AirCarbon - manufactured from methane using an innovative, less expensive and more environmentally friendly production process.

The first step in this process is capturing methane emissions - a short-lived greenhouse gas, which has a more potent warming potential than CO2 – from dairy farms, water treatment plants, landfills and energy facilities. Inside a reactor, the gas is combined with air and converted to liquid polymer, before being made into plastic pellets. According to its inventors, the peculiarity of the reactor developed by Newlight is its efficiency: its yield ratio is apparently nine times higher than other reactors. This fundamentally shifts the cost structure of the greenhouse gas to plastic conversion process - meaning AirCarbon can out-compete oil-based plastics, such as polypropylene and polyethylene, on price. Although some scientists remain skeptical (is the process economically viable? Does AirCarbon really keep its carbon negative promise, and if so, isn’t it just a drop in the ocean?), Newlight accumulates awards... and contracts! With Sprint for Smartphone hulls, Dell for the packaging of some of its laptops, and a furniture manufacturer for a collection of chairs.

Similar initiatives are popping up all over the world - like the unique prototype, operating between 2011 and 2013, in the Aquiris treatment plant in Brussels to demonstrate the feasibility of recycling sewage sludge into biodegradable plastic for use in industry. Turning pollution into a resource – now that’s a good idea!

Main picture: Getty Images

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