What if we could stop making plastic out of oil, and start making it out of carbon pollution floating around in the atmosphere?
It’s a particularly intriguing idea, posed Tuesday in a report from sustainable business website Triple Pundit on a company called Newlight Technologies. The company’s mission, as stated on its website, is to replace oil-based plastics with so-called “air-based plastics” on an unprecedented global scale. In doing so, the company hopes to “stabilize and end climate change.”
Newlight’s product, called AirCarbon, has been around since 2012. But it is just recently starting to get more attention. Last month, USA Today reported on the product hitting the U.S. market, and CleanTechnica lauded it as an alternative to the Keystone XL pipeline this week. Chairs, food containers and automotive parts made from the plastic will soon appear on shelves. Next year, the plastic will form cellphone cases for Virgin Mobile.
To create AirCarbon plastics, Newlight uses a process that extracts carbon molecules from air containing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and rearranges those molecules into “long-chain thermoplastic polymers” that the company says matches the performance of oil-based plastics. Though this process has been known for some time, it has never been cost-effective enough to do — that is, until founders Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel developed what they said is a “ten-times more efficient bio-catalyst” that took more than a decade to perfect.
Capturing carbon from the air is not a new idea. It was first introduced in a scientific paper by Columbia University physicist Klaus Lackner in 1999. The idea that has grown into a budding industry, particularly for fossil fuels. That comes in the form of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide from large point sources and storing it underground. Newlight’s idea is similar. The company proposes to go to those same fossil fuel production facilities, landfills, farms — anywhere that produces a large amount of methane-based carbon — and use the pollution to make plastics.
“You’ll be able to hold carbon in your hand,” Herrema told USA Today. “We actually want to change the world.”
But despite optimism from industry professionals and Newlight’s owners, some scientists and environmentalists caution that, while novel, AirCarbon products will do little to solve the global climate crisis.
“This is the kind of thing that sounds good but is ultimately nearly useless in the effort to combat climate change,” Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology, told Climate Progress. “Every molecule you put in, you have to take back out.”
According to Caldeira, the process of converting oxidized carbon dioxide (CO2) to reduced carbon (C +O2) requires energy from combustion, effectively canceling out the energy saved by taking that carbon out of the atmosphere. Combustion still uses a good amount of energy — at least as much as a normal effort to make plastics would require — even if that energy is renewable. So the question remains — why use the extra energy on this, instead of powering the grid with that extra energy, and burning less fossil fuels?
“It is much easier to avoid putting our CO2 pollution in the atmosphere in the first place than to spoil the atmosphere and try to clean it up later,” Caldeira said.
Harvard physicist David Keith told USA Today that the country simply doesn’t consume enough plastic to be able to absorb the 15-plus tons of carbon dioxide emitted per capita each year in the United States. “It can’t be a significant contributor to solving the [climate] problem,” he said.
Still, even if AirCarbon plastics couldn’t solve the climate crisis, BuildingGreen products editor Brent Ehrlich said that they could replace a lot of oil-based plastics.
“It could potentially add up,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”