Who Needs Tar Sands Oil When We Have AirCarbon?

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The company NewLight Technologies first came across our radar last year, when it announced a system for making plastic almost out of thin air. Instead of using petroleum, the feedstock is the airborne carbon emitted by sewage treatment plants, landfills, power plants, and other industrial sites, so in addition to reducing the need for petroleum the system also captures and recycle greenhouse gas emissions.

How’s that for a nice sustainability twofer? Now that NewLight Technologies is a star – just last month it made headlines in USAToday – let’s see what they’re up to now.

NewLight Technologies AirCarbon for carbon capture
Plastic bowls (cropped) by mmaier.

Carbon Capture For Plastic Products

When we first met NewLight Technologies the company was using the name AirFlex for the plastic produced by its carbon capture system, which now goes by the name AirCarbon™.

According to NewLight, AirCarbon is the performance equivalent of a range of plastics that includes polypropylene, polyethylene, and polystyrene.

AirCarbon also lends itself to various manufacturing processes including extrusion, blown film, fiber spinning, and injection molding.

To top it off, AirCarbon plastic is biodegradable and recyclable, and to top that off, Newlight cites a third party verified cradle-to-grave analysis demonstrating that AirCarbon is a carbon-negative material:

AirCarbonTM is an independently-verified, cradle-to-grave (including all energy inputs, transportation, and end-of-life) carbon-negative material, quantifiably reducing the amount of carbon in the air in every ounce of AirCarbon we make.

Turning Greenhouse Gases Into Plastic

The NewLight system took years of hard slogging to develop but the basics are relatively simple. Emissions are funneled into a  patented conversion reactor and carbon and oxygen are separated out, then reassembled into long chains of molecules called polymers, aka plastic.

If this starts ringing some bells, you might be thinking of our old friends over at LanzaTech. Back in 2010 the company announced a system for making plastic with waste gas from industrial sites and other sources, and just last fall it won a $4 million Department of Energy grant to scale up its system.

Both LanzaTech and NewLight have caught the eye of sustainability leader Virgin. LanzaTech has teamed with Virgin Atlantic to capture waste gas for jet fuel, and according to USA Today  NewLight expects to pair with Virgin Mobile for making cell phone cases.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin institutional furniture products company KI, which has a soup-to-nuts sustainability focus of its own, will also be among the first US companies to incorporate AirCarbon into its products.

Keystone Who?

Getting back to that tar sands oil thing, not too long ago President Obama said that approval of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline would be contingent on its benefit to the US.

As the approval process winds up to a climax, it would be helpful to keep in mind the contrast between a process that helps manufacturers and other US businesses monetize their waste while reducing harmful airborne pollutants, and a massive new piece of fossil fuel infrastructure that imposes new risks on existing communities while creating just a handful of permanent jobs.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3147 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

20 thoughts on “Who Needs Tar Sands Oil When We Have AirCarbon?

  • I’m presuming that as the aircarbon biodegrades (say in soil) that the Carbon is not oxidised but becomes part of the recalcitrant soil carbon repository, because if it is oxidised by bacteria then surely the CO2 is released to the atmosphere ….some clarification of this point would be interesting.

    • And the inputs can not be just CO2 and water. There must be an energy input as well (it could come from renewables). But if the energy input is from fossil fuels, it would be a carbon positive (bad) product still.

      • You should really learn to read the article before posting a comment. Posting comments such as the one you make can mislead or confuse other readers.

        • Maybe you should point it out as I seem to have missed it as well.

          • Thanks for your comments. You can follow the links in the article to NewLight’s website where they refer to the third-party analysis showing that AirCarbon is a lifecycle carbon-negative product, and if that does not provide enough detail you can contact the company for more information.

          • When you burn the resulting plastic you will get CO2, water and heat. This means the plastic contains more energy than the CO2 and water they start with. This energy has to come from somewhere.

            If you get the energy by burning fossil fuel you will still have a carbon positive product.

            Even if renewables are used to provide the required energy it could still be more environmentally friendly to use these renewable resources to produce electricity to feed into the grid and thereby replacing fossil fuels.

            The third party analysis might shed some light, but the newlight website is not very informative and I cannot find any link to a report, or even the name of the third party.

          • the company doesn’t provide information about how it processes or gets enough carbon from the air and turns it into plastic(basically, if they could do what they say, they would need to process enermous amounts of air for one kilo of plastic and really if the process doesn’t uses less energy than you could extract from the product then there’s many more better ways to use the energy, for example energy production from thin air). extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof, some plastic mixed with plastic from other sources like their samples are is not extraordinary proof. either their process is different than what they let people believe or they’re just lying for money. if there’s no energy cost equivalent to the energy in the plastic then the company would be worth a trillion dollars, not ten.

      • This process doesn’t use CO2 to make plastic. Instead it uses methane.

        • Thanks for the info. Just reading the title I was thinking:” where does the energy come from to split the CO2?”

          I don’t expect the bloggers here to understand all the details of all the technologies they write about (I don’t either). But some basic knowledge of physics (like the first law of thermodynamics) would help them to ask the right questions.

        • In the mean time I checked their website, they claim they can use different greenhouse gasses:

          “First, air and greenhouse gas (such as methane/carbon dioxide biogas) is directed into Newlight’s patented conversion reactor”.

    • The process converts methane into one or more polyhydroxyalkanoates, although I don’t know how. But as everyone knows, polyhydroxaldanoates are produced by some bacteria as an energy storage medium which means that basically some bacteria got plastic fat. This means polyhydroxyalkanoates can be broken down by bacteria and are among the most biodegradable of plastics and they presumably produce water and CO2 when they do biodegrade.

  • Another process that can help fossil fuels hang on a bit longer.

    The coal plant may not be profitable on its own but with a plastic plate factory providing a bit more income it will burn coal for more years.

    I’ll get interested in this stuff when the carbon comes out of the atmosphere and not a smoke stack.

    • The process doesn’t use CO2, it instead uses methane. This probably wasn’t made clear in the article on account of whoever wrote the press release deliberately lying through carefully not lying.

  • Since we make most of our plastics out of ethane and propane, of which there is next to none in heavy tar sands, the author once again makes an inflammatory and ill informed assertion in the headline.

  • Thanks for the post Tina. This is a great piece of technology. I expect the company will do well. One may be witty to set up methane traps for fugitive methane emissions as well as conversion of CO and CO2 Emmissions in Intustrial Applications.

  • There is less and less “waste carbon” all the time, as landfills and plants learn to use it instead of venting it.

  • This could change the world completely, for example in China are suffering with the high carbon air has in the big cit[es like Beijin Shangay, etc:, inckuding the whole world, but I am worried what the big oil, chemical corporations and goverments will do?, they don’t like that some one put the nose in theiy bussines.
    There is another way to use methane, cracking to hydrogen and carbon black with plasma reactors, hydrogen can produce electricity, water and heat through H fuel cells, and byproduct carbon black for raw material to many products,

  • Dinesh arora

  • You put in more energy than you would put in compared to making normal plastic.
    100x more or such. So if I wanted a kilo of “ebul oil sands plaskikk” I would give them around a kilo of hydrocarbon to polymerise, it is a very efficient reaction.
    Now if I wanted a kilo of your magical plastic from air, I’d have to wait a while unless you have a giant facility. The air doesn’t just walk into the reactor, it has to be sucked in there; which uses energy (probably “ebul oil sands diesel”) to power the turbines.
    Then once you have that air you need to add energy to make this plastc, which will once again come from those ‘evil fossil fuels’. Or worse yet nuclear reactors!!!!!!1111one
    Making this project neither cost or energy effective. You might as well try turning lead into gold (which is possible) but it’s just as energy inefficient (disregarding the need for a nuclear reactor; which you can’t just buy at your local supermarket) and cost inefficient; probably more than this children’s folly above.

    Seriously, it’s like some hipster who listened a little in class learned that there is carbon dioxide in the air and that plastic is made from (hydro)carbon(s) and thought “Hey why not just turn our air into plastic, that’ll solve our energy crisis.

  • There is another technology way beyond this real gem, and let us look at a simple bug that eats up carbon di-oxide 1 carbon molecule 2 oxygen molecules and this hard working bug has been around for millions of years long before civilization was born and walked upright eats up the carbon di-oxide yum! yum! and makes ethanol all by its lonesome. You see the bugs are smarter than we ever were because ethanol is the basic building block of plastics. The process this company is simply if you collect the greenhouse gases Carbon Di-oxide and you compress the air you collect air containing the carbon di-oxide gases and if you compress the gases in a circuit that cools the gases as they are compressed they eventually become a liquid. the air is oxygen and all these differing gases have different specific gravities and as a liquid in a stack they bleed off at different levels in the stack. With a platinum catalyst or nickel one can reform the liquid CO2 into plastics. A whole plethora of gases can be collected this way oxygen being one, helium, and in fact every gas in the air bleeds off as a liquid at its own level in the stack. This is how everything from avgas to gasoline, to lubricating oil, to bitumen oils for road making to carbon used to smelt aluminium, from Crude oil from tar sands or from deep below sea bottom, or deep in the ground from an oil field. Back to our humble bug, it turns CO2 into ethanol all by its little own lonesome. Now for all those doom and gloomers who see an oil spill around each corner with conspiracies abounding, well hold your horses folks they have also learned how to magnetize crude oil. No more oil spills folks.What is a protester to do he soon will be out of business my my. What will the press report now that their easy pickens are gone for a story. Well they could get massively positive and tell you what I have just told you but they will have to dig the story out and this may take a little hard work? Damn.

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