What if you could pluck pollution out of the air — like the methane gas emitted from cow manure — and create plastics?
Scientists have long known it was possible to use climate-changing methane, rather than oil or natural gas, to make water bottles, Tupperware and other plastics. But they couldn't do it cheaply enough to make the technology commercially viable.
Now, a small Costa Mesa company says it's cracked the code. It's lined up contracts with Dell, L'Oreal and other major corporations to supply the plastic for packaging, containers and chairs from potent methane that would've instead seeped into the atmosphere. Newlight Technologies Chief Executive Mark Herrema claims his company can make plastics cheaper than traditional alternatives, and he hopes to transform the plastic industry and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"We don't think you can have a green impact without having an economic impact," Herrema said. "If you can have the market drive [a solution] what could be more powerful?"
Newlight pitches its product as superior to current petrochemical-based plastics on two fronts: It takes pollution out of the air and it's cheaper, according to Herrema. But the small firm faces daunting challenges in remaking a worldwide industry that produces about 600 billion pounds of plastic annually. It is competing against much larger, established firms that are embarking on major investments because of the low price of natural gas, and Newlight itself needs a significant amount of capital to ramp up production to a grand scale.
Furthermore, its stated mission of gathering methane from waste sources such as dairy farms and landfills, not from the established commercial market, likely will limit its reach, said David Valentine, a professor and methane specialist at UC Santa Barbara.
Agriculture is a prime source of methane emission. More than one-third of U.S. methane gas releases emanate from manure piles or from the digestive systems of livestock — including cows, buffalo, sheep and goats — as burps and worse, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"They have to find these streams of methane that go into the atmosphere, and these are not easily collected," he said. "This is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the production of plastics."
At the moment, Newlight gets its methane from a covered waste pit filled with manure and other runoff from a Tulare County dairy farm. A pipe funnels the gas out of the waste pit, and it's then trucked to a nearby Newlight facility, Herrema said.
Last month, the firm inked a deal with petrochemical distributor Vinmar International to produce as much as 19 billion pounds of plastic material over 20 years, a significant increase from about 2 million pounds a year now, leading Herrema to proclaim that his company is on a path to change "how the world makes materials."
Today, most plastics in the U.S. are made with ethane, a chemical extracted from natural gas. Methane, the largest component of natural gas, is then used for heating and fuel. Elsewhere in the world, oil is used to make plastics.
Newlight claims it's found another way. It instead takes methane from the dairy farm that otherwise would have vented or flared into the air. When the gas arrives at Newlight's Kern County plant it's pumped into a reactor, along with air and a special biocatalyst that Newlight developed.
The result is a carbon-negative plastic material that Newlight calls AirCarbon. The company then sells AirCarbon, in recyclable or biodegradable form, to firms that create finished products. The company is also looking to open a larger plant in the Midwest and expand where it gets methane to more dairies and other major emitters including landfills, water treatment plants and oil and gas operations.
Methane is a major cause of the greenhouse gas emissions that most scientists say cause global warming. Although methane accounts for only 10% of U.S. emissions, it's much more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, the gas most commonly associated with global warming.
Other companies are working to harness greenhouse gases as well. Mango Materials in the San Francisco Bay area, for example, says it can convert waste methane to plastics, although it has yet to launch any commercial operations.
Professor Valentine said Newlight itself won't have a major impact on greenhouse gas reduction, but every bit helps.
"This is a small wedge of a pie, and the more of these wedges that become available the better we are able to solve the problem," he said.
For years, the pace of innovation was slow at Newlight.
Herrema and co-founder Kenton Kimmel launched the company in 2003, while the childhood friends were still at Princeton and Northwestern universities.
After they graduated with degrees in politics and biomedical engineering, respectively, they worked hotel jobs to support their start-up and often spent seven days a week in the lab. They tried one formula, then another. Finally in 2010, Herrema said, they had a breakthrough when they discovered how to make 3 kilograms of plastic material for every kilogram of biocatalyst.
For years, they had been stuck on a 1-to-1 ratio. Herrema recalls that when he hit the higher rate, at about 2 in the morning, he sprinted through Newlight's Costa Mesa facility.
"I knew what had just happened," he said. "Waking up the next morning felt like Christmas."
The company said it soon ramped up to a 9-to-1 ratio and has raised nearly $20 million in funding. In 2014, the World Economic Forum selected Newlight as one of 24 "Technology Pioneers," an award previously given to Google and Airbnb.
University of Pittsburgh professor Goetz Veser, who has studied methane-to-plastic technologies, said he's unfamiliar with Newlight's process. But if its claims are true it would be "a remarkable achievement," he said in an email.
"Converting methane to higher hydrocarbons (and thus to plastics) has been a major challenge in industrial catalysis for decades," he said.
William Dowd, a former research director of industrial biotechnology at Dow Chemical, liked Newlight so much he started doing work for the endeavor. He investigated the firm's process for a venture capital firm about two years ago and found it to be "absolutely outstanding." After that, he joined Newlight's scientific advisory board and started doing some consulting work for the firm.
"If you look at the economics of the Newlight process, it's very, very competitive, if not superior, to petrochemical plastics that it might displace," Dowd said.
Herrema said his original vision is finally coming true, evidenced by recent deals with large firms for AirCarbon.
"To be able to move that at real volume with [major] companies is an indication that the proof is in the pudding," Herrema said.