Newlight proposes one way to help with climate change: convert greenhouse gas into bioplastic to make products like furniture.
Newlight co-founder Mark Herrema says he was inspired by nature to come up with a solution to climate change. He notes that every day, plants and microorganisms naturally sequester greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, using those gases as their source of carbon for growth. This happens in everything from redwood trees to coral reefs and deep-sea bacteria.
Herrema thought: what if we could harness these natural processes in a way that turned air-bound carbon from landfills, farms and energy facilities into valuable products? Putting man-made GHG emissions that would otherwise go into the atmosphere to good use could harness the market to reduce the amount of carbon in the air.
In 2003, Herrema connected with a likeminded friend of his from high school and they started Newlight. “Climate change is one of the primary challenges of our time and we were drawn to that,” says Herrema. “We saw everyone looking at carbon as the enemy, but carbon is the basis of life; we thought there could be another way.”
Over the course of a decade, Herrema’s small team at Newlight worked on an approach using microrganisms that produce enzymes. These enzymes trigger a chemical reaction that draws the carbon out of CO2 or methane, turning it into a naturally occurring biodegradable polymer that is made in all living things, including the human body – but, importantly, can be melted and formed into shapes, so that it can replace what we more commonly know as plastic. A major challenge was making the process cost-effective enough so that the bioplastic created using this process could compete with traditional oil-based plastics.
Ultimately they came up with a solution that combines air with a concentrated stream of CO2 or methane to efficiently produce high yields of bioplastic. The bioplastic created is formed into small pellets that can then be melted and cooled into a range of commercial products from plastic bags to electronic components, phone cases and chairs. Newlight is already seeing interest in its AirCarbon product from major companies like Dell and IKEA. In 2016, Newlight signed an agreement with IKEA to enable the global giant to produce its own AirCarbon bioplastics to make its chairs and other furniture products.
Newlight is also one of ten teams of finalists in the US$20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition. The prestigious international competition is supported by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), an alliance of oil sands producers committed to driving innovation to create a lower-carbon, energy abundant future, and NRG a major power producer in the U.S.
Over the next year and a half, NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE finalists will have a chance to prove that their technologies work at commercial scale. Newlight is among five finalists testing their approach at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre using a carbon dioxide flue stream from a working natural gas power plant in Calgary, Alberta.
“What’s so powerful about this prize is it has the ability to show the world that we can do something to address climate change,” says Herrema.