Located in Costa Mesa, California, Newlight Technologies is forming plastic out of thin air. Literally.
"We would be breathing this right now," said Mark Herrema, Newlight’s CEO.
Herrema sees both sides of the climate change debate.
"You’ve got people on one side who say, if we enact carbon legislation it’s going to cost the economy, and they’re not wrong," Herrema said. "On the other side, we have people who say this is a huge problem and we need to do something about it, and they’re not wrong, either. The problem is they haven’t been able to find something that works for both sides."
The 32-year-old may have found that “something.” He’s figured out how to make plastic out of destructive carbon emissions that would otherwise heat the atmosphere, rather than with fossil fuels such as oil. Most importantly, he figured out a way to do it cheaper. It’s something he has been working on for 11 years since he started the company with his friend Kenton Kimmel in his parents’ garage.
"We’re not the first people to have the idea of turning greenhouse gas into plastic," Herrera said. "The thing that was missing was that no one had figured out how to do it cost-effectively."
Here’s how it works: Carbon emissions are captured from farms, landfills, and energy facilities and are fed into a 50-foot-tall reactor at Newlight’s plant. A bundle of enzymes strips out the carbon and oxygen and rearranges them into a substance they call air carbon.
The product is then melted down and cooled inside tubes and sliced into little plastic pellets that can be molded into anything.
Herrema calls it “a disruptive technology that’s gonna change the world.”
Just to clarify some things:
The article’s incorrect in saying that this uses captured CO2 (probably because the media thinks CO2 is the only carbon emission out there). I kinda raised an eyebrow when they said farms and CO2 in the same article, and looked more into the story. The process actually relies on methane (CH4).
The issue here is methane is a highly viable natural gas resource as well. Essentially this process isn’t too different than making fossil fuels into plastics, just it has a lot less carbon waste product, and it’s using a gaseous fuel rather than liquid.
It’s also worth noting that methane is much smaller in the atmosphere than CO2, but is also significantly more reflective as a greenhouse gas. CO2 consists of two double bonds while methane is four single bonds. In layman’s terms, these bonds cause the atoms to vibrate when heated, reflecting heat off in all directions. Because the double bonds are significantly stronger, CO2 vibrates less, making methane significantly more reflective.
It’d be cooler if this could rely on CO2, since that’d be a pure waste, rather than an alternative fuel source. Still, it’s not inaccurate to say it’s still removing carbon from the atmosphere, via both capture methods and being an alternative to using oil to produce plastics.