Carbon Emissions Get a New Life in a Bioplastic

For years, scientists have looked for cheap, alternative ways to create plastics that could cut dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. The idea of sequestering carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere is not a new one, but has never been feasible at a reasonable price. Thanks to a breakthrough made by Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel, that’s no longer the case.

Herrema and Kimmel, and their company Newlight Technologies, managed a cheaper way to capture carbon emissions and convert them to plastics through use of an efficient biocatalyst. The resulting plastic, which they have named AirCarbon, is made by combining air with methane-based carbon emissions — with approximately 40% of the weight of the plastic coming from oxygen in the air and 60% from carbon and hydrogen from the captured methane.

Methane is 25 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Because of this, there are a number of methods being used to control the gas, including voluntary programs led by the EPA and its partners.

Methane emissions in the U.S. actually decreased overall by nearly 15% between 1990 and 2013, the EPA said. And though emissions decreased from sources associated with natural gas and petroleum products, emissions associated with agriculture increased.

That's why alternative solutions like AirCarbon are important: they give these greenhouse gas emissions a new purpose. In fact, AirCarbon has been certified by an independent third party as carbon negative in a cradle-to-grave analysis using standards set by the National Science Foundation.  

The science of the process, as explained on Newlight Technology’s website, involves capturing, isolating and polymerizing.

To start, the company collects methane from farms, landfills, energy facilities and water treatment plants, all of which produce large amounts of the toxic greenhouse gas.

The captured methane is then fed into a conversion reactor, along with air and Newlight’s biocatalyst, to isolate the elements.

Then, during polymerization, the carbon, oxygen and hydrogen are strung into a long thermopolymer chain that resembles a plastic and then formed into a pellet, which then can be melted down and used to produce many different things.

AirCarbon is considered an acceptable substitute for polypropylene, polyethylene, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, polystyrene and thermoplastic polyurethane. Carbon negative products made with AirCarbon include packaging, cellphone cases and chairs, and we can expect to see an expansion in products using AirCarbon.

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(Graphic illustrations by Eleanor Beckerman)

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