Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge: 2016 Designing Greener Chemicals and Specific Environmental Benefit: Climate Change Awards
AirCarbon: Greenhouse Gas Transformed into High-Performance Thermoplastic
- Developed a low-cost plastic made from methane-based greenhouse gas that is used to make:
- cell phone cases;
- furniture; and
- other products.
- The new plastic is:
- net carbon negative; and
- has equal or better performance than petroleum-based plastic products.
Summary of Technology: Methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands. It is also the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. from human activities, such as leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock. Methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, but methane is more efficient at trapping radiation. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
Newlight Technologies developed and commercialized a carbon capture technology that combines methane with air to produce AirCarbon™, a high-performance thermoplastic material that matches the performance of a wide range of petroleum-based plastics while out-competing on price. Newlight’s biocatalyst combines air and methane-based carbon to produce polymers at environmentally friendly, ambient conditions. Despite the conceptual simplicity, previous technologies utilizing carbon capture to manufacture plastics resulted in production costs that were significantly higher than petroleum-based manufacture of plastics.
To overcome this long-standing cost challenge, Newlight developed a biocatalyst that does not “turn itself off” based on the amount of polymer being produced. To do this, Newlight developed a process to disable the negative feedback receptors on polyhydroxyalkanoate polymerase, the central polymer production enzyme in the biocatalyst. As a result, the biocatalyst is able to continue to polymerize significantly beyond previous maximum limits and generate a yield of nine kilograms of polymer for every one kilogram of biocatalyst (9:1) – nine times more material compared to previous technologies. Newlight’s AirCarbon™ technology also reduces unit operations by a factor of three and capital cost by a factor of five, resulting in a net operating cost that enables AirCarbon™ to be cost and performance advantageous compared to petrochemical incumbents.
Within 24 months of scaling in 2013, AirCarbon™ was adopted by a range of leading companies including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IKEA, KI, Sprint, The Body Shop, and Virgin to make packaging bags, containers, cell phone cases, furniture, and a range of other products. These products use a greenhouse gas in a carbon-negative process as a cost-effective replacement for petroleum-based plastics.