Cheap plastic captures and stores carbon

Sensemaking / Cheap plastic captures and stores carbon

The company behind a new carbon-negative polymer has ambitions to replace fossil-based plastics worldwide.

By Ian Randall / 04 Mar 2014

A new, cheap and biodegradable polyester may offer a market-driven way to both reduce the volume of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere and lower our dependency on oil. Made from captured carbon, the material – dubbed AirCarbon – is the brainchild of US-based Newlight Technologies, and is to be used in a variety of applications, including the world’s first carbon-negative office chair.

Inspired by natural carbon-processing systems, the AirCarbon polymer is made by combining oxygen from air with carbon from concentrated greenhouse gases, drawn from energy facilities, farms, landfills and water treatment plants. These gases – which would otherwise end up in the atmosphere – are diluted with air, and passed through a special biocatalyst. This breaks the gases apart and reassembles them as long-chain plastic molecules (a thermopolymer), which can then be used to create everyday goods.

The AirCarbon manufacturing process can convert greenhouse gases into plastic “at a yield that is approximately 10 times […] higher than previous biocatalysts”, claims Mark Herrema, CEO of Newlight Technologies. He adds that AirCarbon is now able to out-compete oil-based plastics on price. “As such, AirCarbon represents a market-driven solution to sequestering carbon.”

The finished product can stand in for a variety of types of conventional plastic, making it suitable for a wide range of applications. Alongside the office chair, which is being made in collaboration with global furniture company KI, Newlight Technologies is planning a wide variety of products made from their AirCarbon material, including food containers, automotive parts and mobile phone cases.

The company plans to increase its production capacity, establishing additional manufacturing plants. “Our goal is to replace oil-based plastics on a global scale”, says Herrema, “so with commercial scale-up behind us, all of our focus now is on expansion.”

According to Newlight, AirCarbon “has been verified by independent third-party analysis as a carbon-negative material”: a status which reportedly factors in the energy, transportation and end-of-life costs associated with the product. Green Futures sought confirmation of this appraisal, but Newlight Technologies did not respond to requests to name the unidentified third party.

Nonetheless, Alain Goeppert, a chemist at the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, University of Southern Carolina, asserts that “producing sustainable polymers from waste products is still a very interesting concept and should be pursued.” – Ian Randall

Photo credit: KI

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

Please register or log in to comment.