Turning greenhouse gases into mobile phone cases
Original article – The Guardian
Forget old-style alchemy. A California-based tech company has come up with something far cooler than just turning dull metal into shiny metal. Using a proprietary ‘biocatalyst’ machine, Newlight Technologies has devised a way of taking greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and turning it into plastic pellets.
The AirCarbon technology promises not only to reduce the use of petroleum in plastic manufacturing, but to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at the same time. The net result could be a “whole new paradigm for how plastics impact the world”, says Mark Herrema, Newlight’s co-founder and chief executive.
“We harness carbon from greenhouse gas and use it as a resource to make materials that are as strong as oil-based plastics but less expensive”, he adds.
So will it take off? The early signs are certainly promising. US telecommunications firm Sprint has just announced that it will launch an iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s case based on the revolutionary thermoplastic. The case, which is certified by the independent environmental auditor Trucost as “carbon-negative” (meaning it stores more carbon than it emits), will initially sell in limited volumes online.
“Phone cases are a significant use of plastics for us [and] a very easy market for us to get into”, says Amy Hargroves, Sprint’s director of corporate responsibility and sustainability. “The point really isn’t just about the sales of an AirCarbon case, but it’s getting it to scale as an acceptable material in our broader portfolio and that of other companies.”
To that end, news from Dell will help. The US computer manufacturer recently reported its intention to release packaging sleeves made from the eco plastic for its Latitude series notebooks. If successful, Dells says it will move more of its packaging and products over to AirCarbon in the future.
Newlight is currently in discussions with a number of other manufacturers to develop a range of other applications based on the technology, from automotive and beverage solutions through to apparel and packaging.
“The AirCarbon production technology was scaled to small commercial scale in August 2013, so our mission now is to ramp up capacity to global scale. Our next major target is 50m pounds per year capacity”, says Herrema, who founded Newlight back in 2003.
The technology works by initially isolating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from industrial sources, such digesters and methane capture technologies on dairy farms. The carbon-heavy air is then pumped into a biocatalyst that isolates the carbon, before reassembling it in a polymerising process into a long-chain thermopolymer.
Newlight insists that the technology outcompetes conventional oil-based plastic on price and its overall environmental footprint. It also operates recycling facilities to re-process AirCarbon products, edging it towards the holy grail of “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing. Plastic manufacturing currently accounts for 4% of global oil consumption, according to the British Plastics Federation.
Sprint’s Hargroves concedes that integrating any new innovation into the plastics supply chain carries risks and that manufacturers are often cautious breed about adopting new technologies. That said, she predicts a “pretty broad acceptance” of the disruptive technology within a decade.
“The question is ‘why wouldn’t you do it?'” she says. “If you can get to the point where it is less expensive that other options, it has environmental benefits and it has the same quality, it should become the obvious choice.”