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Who Needs Tar Sands Oil When We Have AirCarbon?

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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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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