The idea that producing plastic can be beneficial to the environment may seem preposterous. However, Newlight Technologies has recently incorporated a very important technology named AirCarbon that is unlike traditional plastic production that is usually made with oil, petroleum, or other fossil fuels. AirCarbon actually reverses the process and uses greenhouse gases to create the plastic product. The carbon in the air is used to make plastic pellets that can then be used to make other products.
Initially, the products to be made from this thermoplastic include iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s cases as announced recently by Sprint, which is not a low-profile company. Next on the list of products to be made from AirCarbon are chairs, car parts, and other everyday items that have been made from traditional plastic that is not only less eco-friendly, it is less cost efficient as well. AirCarbon as a molecule resembles polypropylene, and can make a more economical material than traditional plastic. It also has been certified “carbon-negative” by Trucost, the independent environmental auditor. Carbon-negative means the product stores more carbon than it creates in the production process.
With all the positive attributes of AirCarbon, it is important to bear several things in mind. The first is that no scientific discovery is born in a vacuum. Inventors and co-founders of Newlight Technologies Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel were not the first to envision taking greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and making plastic with it. Scientists before them just could not make it economically feasible to do so. Herrema and Kimmel’s bio-catalyst, which isolates the carbon from liquefied gas and converts it into a plastic molecule, is 10 times more efficient than previous incarnations by other scientists.
Another important thing to bear in mind is that in an age of doomsday reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other organizations, while it is encouraging to hear about a scientific innovation that enables a more green substitute for the production of plastic, AirCarbon is not the end-all solution for preventing catastrophic, inevitable climate change. Many experts agree that the over 15 tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by the United States alone cannot be neutralized by AirCarbon. Harvard physicist says of AirCarbon “it can’t be a significant contributor to solving the problem.”
Herrema defends his invention, which won the “bio-material of the year” award in 2013 as chosen by the International Conference on Bio-based Plastics and Composites. It is more than just “a drop in the bucket,” he says. Other supporters say that it is not even off the launch pad yet, and could potentially replace much of oil-based plastic production. Brent Ehrlich of BuildingGreen says “it could potentially add up.”
Herrema and Kimmel spent many grueling years perfecting their efficient catalyst that separates carbon from oxygen, the system which is now being used in industrial sites that create lots of greenhouse gases, then used for plastic production. For years they took low-end jobs to save up funds to pay the rent on lab space to fine-tune their product, all the while being laughed at by industry experts. The result of their work is astounding: “You’ll be able to hold carbon in your hand,” says Herrema.
In light of the nation’s global addiction to oil, the Keystone XL Pipeline which is in limbo right now, the tar sands in Canada which will be shipped somewhere for refinement inevitably, it is very important that alternatives are found to the finite resource of oil. All the more exciting is the reversal of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the production and use of plastic production.
Opinion By Jesse Eells-Adams