How cutting oil out of plastics could save planet

Produced by everything from cattle and swamps to humans, methane is the second biggest contributor to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions after carbon dioxide.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency describes the comparative effect of methane on climate change as being “pound for pound… over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100 year period.”

pyrolysisplantBut what if methane could be turned into something that’s useful and in constant demand? At California based Newlight Technologies, they think they’ve found the answer.

The company has spent a decade researching and developing a technique that its website says can, “produce high-performance thermoplastics from air and methane emissions.”

Newlight believes that the plastics it produces are competitively priced and offer the same performance as oil-based plastics.

How then, does Newlight’s technology work, and how could it help the environment?

“We take methane, we combine it with air, and we have a bio catalyst that brings those two things together and turns it into a plastic molecule,” Mark Herrema, Co-founder and CEO of Newlight Technologies, told CNBC’s Sustainable Energy.

“We can take that plastic molecule and use it to replace plastics that would otherwise be made from fossil fuels,” Herrema added. The end product is a ‘carbon-negative’ plastic that Newlight calls ‘AirCarbon’, which has similar properties to widely used polypropylene.

The impact of Newlight’s technology on the environment could be huge. In 2010, roughly 191 million barrels of liquid petroleum gases and natural gas liquids were used to make plastic products, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA).

If just a small fraction of plastic products could be produced using Newlight’s technique, then our reliance on fossil fuel-based products would be lessened.

In Newlight’s vision of the future, greenhouse gas emissions could, eventually, become as valuable as oil.

“This is something that hasn’t been done before,” Herrema has said.

“Typically, when you have a sustainable resin you either have to give up on performance or pricing. We’re talking about a high magnitude opportunity in the kind of resins we’re making and the places that we’re looking to go.”

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