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Newlight Makes Plastic Out of Thin Air (Not Oil)

RP Siegel | Tuesday January 7th, 2014 | 7 Comments

PlasticImagine if you were given one wish to do anything you could about climate change, what would you do? Resetting the atmospheric carbon concentration back to pre-industrial levels would certainly be a big help. But at the rate we are currently generating CO2, adding 2.1 ppm per year and rising, if we didn’t do something else to slow down our emissions, we would be right back where we are today in a surprisingly short amount of time.

What if we could pull CO2 out of the air and convert it into something useful, something that requires the generation of CO2 to produce today? Wouldn’t a reversal like that be helpful?

That is exactly what a company called Newlight Technologies is doing. Its patented technology extracts carbon from the air and converts it into long-chain polymers that can be used as substitutes for oil-based plastics.

Every pound of conventionally produced plastic generates 6 pounds of CO2. Using Newlight’s method not only avoids this carbon production, but it also removes an additional pound of CO2 from the atmosphere. Considering that worldwide production of plastic is currently 77 pounds for every person on the planet, and increasing by 3 percent every year, shifting to this method of production represents an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions by close to 2 billion tons annually. That’s about 4.7 percent of the current global emission level. Of course a much larger portion of emissions are generated from transportation, electricity generation and the heating of buildings and water, but this is still a significant amount.

Newlight’s carbon capture technology is inspired by nature. It extracts carbon molecules from air containing greenhouse gases and rearranges those molecules into long-chain thermoplastic polymers that can match the performance of oil-based plastics. Their products can also outperform oil-based plastics on price. The impact of this approach is comparable to bioplastics, though the net footprint should be lower due to the absence of agricultural inputs such as land, water and chemicals.

The company was founded in 2003 by alumni of Princeton and Northwestern. They have been operating at commercial scale for several years, obtaining their inputs from such dirty sources as wastewater treatment facilities, landfills, digesters and energy facilities.

Their plastic resins are available in a variety of functional grades, providing green replacements for various grades of: polypropylene (homopolymer, glass-filled and impact co-polymer), polyethylene (HD, LD and LLD), ABS, high impact polystyrene, PMMA and TPU.  Newlight’s AirCarbon resins can also be used in extrusion, blown film, cast film, thermoforming, fiber spinning and injection molding applications.

All the resulting end products can be both recyclable and biodegradable, depending on the formulations used and the requirement for durability.

According to the company, “by using greenhouse gases as a carbon input, AirCarbon resins, including AirCarbon-350, can be produced as a carbon-negative thermoplastic material, quantifiably reducing the amount of carbon released into the air in every pound of plastic made.”

It’s innovations like this one that the doomsayers have overlooked in there pronouncement of “game over.” However, we need more of them, and we need them fast. Of course, there is the fact to consider that we use too much plastic and often don’t dispose of it responsibly. And there are those who feel we’d be entirely better off without it. Though I feel there are places where plastic makes sense in applications where low-cost, lightweight material is needed.

How about a process to extract the CO2 from the air and turn it directly into energy? Green plants can do it, so why can’t we? Researchers in Minnesota are looking at using CO2 as a heat transfer fluid to vastly improve the performance of geothermal power generation. And if the EPA doesn’t cave in to pressure from oil companies who would like to see them withdraw support for biofuels, we might just see third generation biofuels that convert carbon into energy more directly.

Image credit: Nemo’s Great Uncle: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Would love to have some more info on how much energy it takes to produce, and what the wholesale costs are. Is it competitive, and if not, when? Is it in commercial production? Are there inherent benefits or weaknesses with regard to quality of the material compared to conventional plastics?

    • RPSiegel

      Check out their website. They claim it is cost-competitve and can make a variety pf resins for different applications.

  • RPSiegel

    Accordingto Mark Herrema of Newlight, “Yes, AirCarbon is indeed still carbon negative after factoring in energy, transportation, and all other elements of the production process- as independently verified.

    The carbon footprint of each pound of AirCarbon varies depending on the specific grade (from flexible to rigid, as an example), but all grades of AirCarbon are carbon negative.”

  • http://CoSy.com/ Bob Armstrong

    Since the only thing CO2 is measurably doing is greening the planet , The viability of the tek depends on whether the total costs including CO2 are competitive . Extracting the CO2 from the air can’t possibly be . Power plant exhaust may be .

  • Emily Nestlerode

    I’m sad about that “their/there” typo.

    [It’s innovations like this one that the doomsayers have overlooked in there pronouncement of “game over.”]

  • sergiy

    >planet saving technology
    >patented

    don’t worry we’re still doomed

  • Robert Owen

    One of the chief arguments against coal energy is suddenly made mute. Carbon sequestration is potentially transformed from a controversial and expensive requirement to the use of coal, to a source of revenue to the coal industry as a supplier of carbon for making plastics.
    What are they waiting for?