We all have to look at the results of the Climate Change Conference in Lima/Peru, to know that the problems with greenhouse gas emissions never will be tackled by politicians. They don’t seem to be able to come up with a proper program to diminish the emissions of greenhouse gases by the national industries.
But what if we could capture carbon emissions that would otherwise become a part of the air, and use them to make materials that would otherwise be made from oil?
And that’s exactly what Newlight Technologies did.
Although creating plastic from waste gases has been possible for decades, Newlight says it has accelerated the process. After 10 years of research, Newlight Technologies LLC, founded in Irvine, California in 2003, has developed the world’s first commercially-scaled carbon capture technology able to produce high-performance thermoplastics from air and methane emissions that can match the performance of oil-based plastics and out-compete on price.
As with so many technological innovations the inspiration came from nature. Or as Newlight defines it:
“If you think about it, we see the same carbon capturing process in nature every day. Every single thing that you see in nature that is green is produced by pulling carbon out of the air. Plants take carbon and use it to make leaves, branches, and blades of grass. So we do precisely the same thing. We just found a way to pull carbon out of an airstream and turn it into a plastic molecule. You just have to pay attention to nature”.
The result is, what Newligt calls, AirCarbon, a plastic material made by sequestering carbon emissions that would otherwise become part of the air.
AirCarbon is made by combining air with methane-based carbon emissions (about the technology in detail in a minute), to produce a material that is approximately 40% oxygen from air and 60% carbon and hydrogen from captured methane emissions by weight. By replacing oil with AirCarbon, Newlight transforms the products we use every day into materials that sequester more greenhouse gas than they emit and actually improve the world by displacing oil, reducing cost, and reducing the amount of carbon in the air.
AirCarbon is able to meet the performance requirements of a wide range of applications. The company claims that the material, which is made by incorporating polyhydroxyalkanoate, to provide similar performance characteristics to traditional polyethylene. It can be used in extrusion, blown film, cast film, thermoforming, fibre spinning, and injection moulding.
The AirCarbon production process begins with concentrated methane-based carbon emissions, including air-bound methane emissions generated from farms, water treatment plants, landfills, and energy facilities. Due to the high heat-trapping potential and superior thermodynamics of methane compared to carbon dioxide, the company’s primary focus is on sequestering methane-based greenhouse gases, which have over 20 times the heat-trapping impact of carbon dioxide (20 carbon dioxide capture plants would be needed to match the impact of 1 methane capture plant). Newlight is now using the company’s patented greenhouse gas-to-plastic bioconversion technology to produce plastics from air and methane-containing greenhouse gas emissions generated at a farm.
First, rather than venting or combusting methane emissions, which would release 100% of the carbon emissions into the air, concentrated methane emissions are captured and inserted into Newlight’s polymerization system for material synthesis.
Once inside, the greenhouse gas is combined with air and Newlight’s 9X biocatalyst, the engine behind the AirCarbon production process, operates at nearly an order of magnitude higher yield than previous greenhouse gas-to-polymer biocatalysts. Previously, 1 kg of biocatalyst was required to make 1 kg of polymer, after which point the biocatalyst would exhibit a negative feedback response, and switch from polymer production to CO2 production. At this yield, the cost of production rendered the material too expensive to compete with oil-based plastics, approximately 3 times higher. Newlight’s 9X biocatalyst generates a polymer conversion yield that is over nine times higher than previous, from a yield ratio of 1:1 to 1:9, enabled by developing a new kind of biocatalyst over 10 years of research that does not exhibit a negative feedback response, fundamentally shifting the cost structure of the greenhouse gas to plastic conversion process, and enabling AirCarbon to out-compete oil-based plastics, such as polypropylene and polyethylene, on price.
Newlight’s biocatalyst works by combining air with methane, and assembling the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules therein into a long chain PHA-based thermoplastic material called AirCarbon that is, by weight, approximately 40% oxygen from air and 60% carbon and hydrogen from methane emissions.
Once synthesized, AirCarbon is removed from the reactor system and processed into a pellet, which is then melted and formed into shapes.
The first serious implementation of this new carbon-negative plastic is by Dell for the apckaging of its computers. The AirCarbon-based packaging was launched this fall beginning with the packaging sleeves around new Dell Latitude series notebooks. Dell is piloting AirCarbon packaging in the United States, and plans to extend it globally for use in both packaging and products. Previous Dell packaging innovation includes bamboo and wheat straw that helped eliminate 20 million pounds of packaging and saved 18 million dollars. The new AirCarbon packaging, greener and less expensive to manufacture than oil-based plastic packaging, brings Dell another step closer to achieving its goal of using 100% sustainable packaging by 2020.
AirCarbon has been independently-verified on a cradle-to-grave basis as a carbon-negative material, including all energy, materials, transportation, product use, and end-of-life/disposal associated with the material. Specifically, the National Science Foundation (NSF) commissioned Trucost to develop a cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions footprint of AirCarbon, presenting the final results based on standardized cradle-to-grave boundaries determined by NSF, including carbon associated with all energy inputs used to carry out the AirCarbon manufacturing process, as well as material inputs, transportation, packaging, and product end-of-life. The conclusion, based on Newlight’s AirCarbon production process, which uses concentrated methane-based carbon emissions that would otherwise become part of air as a feedstock input:
“AirCarbon is a carbon-negative material on a cradle-to-grave basis, as verified by independent third-party analysis performed by Trucost in cooperation with NSF Sustainability.”
It’s a beautiful development, but I have critical note. Nowhere on the company website, even worse nowhere on the internet, a word is said about the recyclability of AirCarbon plastics. For the insider it might be a non-issue and crystal clear, but for the non-professional and even, I’m afraid, for the professional, it’s not clear. A simple statement that the product is made from greenhouse gases doesn’t give me any guarantee that it’s recyclable, let alone bio-degradable or compostable.
The Architect Magazine states that: “The resulting plastic is biodegradable, recyclable in multiple stages, and has programmable compostability”. A nice phrase for the architects, but I haven’t found any prove or example and Newlight hasn’t any information about recyclability on its website. Maybe for them it’s crystal clear, but for us, simple souls, it isn’t.
I found another press-release with a similar cryptic phrase: “The AirCarbon-based cases can be recycled at a plastics recycling centre, but not via curbside pickup”. Whatever that means in terms of recyclability.
I’m well aware that Dell its AirCarbon packaging is suggesting to be a part of its closed-loop supply chain. But in its press-release about the introduction of AirCarbon packaging for its notebooks, Dell isn’t including the new AirCarbon packaging in this so-called closed-loop supply chain. Dell only states that it is another step closer to achieving its goal of using 100% sustainable packaging by 2020.
The conclusion is that we still don’t know for certain whether AirCarbon material is recyclable, compostable and/or bio-degradable. The definition isn’t coming much beyond the statement that AirCarbon has similar characteristics as polyethylene.