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Fossil Fuels

Published on April 3rd, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Why Your Next Lawn Chair Will Not Be Made From Shale Gas

April 3rd, 2014 by  

A couple of weeks ago we noted that ExxonMobil has been doubling down on its shale field holdings while expanding its gas-to-plastic capabilities, and if you’re wondering whether or not that represents good planning in today’s carbon-saturated world take a look at this other company that just revved up commercial operations, Newlight Technologies.

Newlight is also engaged in the gas-to-plastics market but instead of extracting carbon from nonrenewable sources the company is harvesting it from renewable gas sources that are rich in methane including landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and farms.

The result: a high performance family of thermoplastics called AirCarbon that Newlight claims is carbon negative and can “significantly” out-compete conventional oil based plastics on price.

Carbon negative plastic! Now, how is ExxonMobil (or the US shale drilling industry in general, for that matter) supposed to compete with that?

plastic chairs

Plastic chairs by David K.

Carbon Negative Plastic Versus Fracking

Newlight has created the kind of sustainability twofer that just does not apply to fossil carbon.

The carbon negative plastic angle is one side of the twofer, but it’s not all about the capture and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The other side of the twofer is illustrated by the potential for harvesting methane from municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Treatment plants are costly, energy-sucking major pieces of civic infrastructure that must be constantly updated to meet new environmental standards or replace aging equipment.

Aside from not doing anything to alleviate those costs,  shale gas is creating more headaches for municipalities in the form of fracking wastewater disposal issues that potentially affect drinking water supplies.

A growing number of communities are also taking steps to limit or prohibit shale drilling (aka fracking) withing their borders in consideration of numerous other negative impacts associated with fracking.

Now contrast that with Newlight’s process, which could provide municipal planners with a way to extract value from their treatment plant operations, helping to alleviate costs while involving far fewer negative impacts, if any.

The same goes for alleviating municipal landfill costs.

As for the agricultural sector, the EPA and US Department of Agriculture have already teamed up to promote livestock biogas conversion as a means of helping dairy farmers improve their bottom line, so that’s another strong potential market for NewLight.

Carbon Negative Plastic

We first took note of Newlight’s microbe based, renewable gas-to-plastic process back in 2012, and we’re happy to say that it is finally getting some well deserved attention in mainstream media.

Newlight’s process takes place in reactors to rev up the natural process of bacterial fermentation, yielding the the linear polyesters PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates). According to our friends over at Wikipedia polyesters are used by bacteria to store carbon and energy, making these bugs a ripe candidate for the production of all sorts of bioplastics.

In the latest developments, January 2014 saw Newlight announce its first commercial-scale production facility, capturing methane-based carbon from an agricultural operation in California.

Late yesterday, the company announced the successful completion of a Series C financing round at $9.2 million.

Let’s note for the record that currently, Newlight is specifically targeting petroleum as its main competitor, but given the revved-up pace of R&D across the plastics spectrum we’re thinking that shale gas will also eventually come under the company’s radar.

As for ExxonMobil, the last time we checked in was earlier this week, when the company released a first-of-its kind carbon risk disclosure report.

Color us cynical but we find the timing of the release somewhat opportunistic. It came only after prodding by shareholder activists and it just so happened to follow a few days after ExxonMobil publicly admitted that it had sold contaminated gasoline in Louisiana, leading to engine failure in some vehicles.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Ronald Brakels

    Polyethylene, including high density polyethylene which is currently used in lawn chairs, is currently made from ethane extracted from natural gas. Polyesters which are apparently what Newlight are making have traditionally been made from oil and wouldn’t generally see much use as furniture. But as mentioned maybe they will get around to eliminating the need for natural gas in polyethylene production.

    • Rick Kargaard

      I am not sure what the point is other than profit. The only real advantage I can see is utilizing methane which may otherwise escape into the atmosphere.

      • Ronald Brakels

        Well polyester is over one thousand or more dollars a tonne, (about a 25% more than the cost of oil per tonne) so hopefully they can make a profit and it will reduce the demand for oil and presumably reduce the amount of methane entering the atmosphere and every little bit helps. And I suppose if the cost falls it could substitute for less environmentally friendly materials. Instead of buying a steel can of beans one would buy a plastic bag of beans. Something which I am surprised hasn’t caught on already given the transport savings that would resut from the reduced weight.

        • Rick Kargaard

          Steel or aluminum cans are recyclable. The ability to recycle plastic is limited.
          That said, here in Canada many products are sold in plastic jars, Del Monte sells fruit in plastic containers. Peanut butter and salad dressings are a couple of other examples. The jars are much lighter than glass and must affect a saving in transportation. Del Monte fruit jars also have a square profile for more efficient boxing.
          As someone who once owned supermarkets, plastic bags can be a bit of a nightmare for display if they contain liquids. They are easily punctured and are slippery.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Thanks for that. Here it costs $20 an hour to pay someone to “Clean up in aisle seven” so baked beans in plastic bags is not going to make the big supermarket chains happy. Putting baked beans in tough PET (polyethylene) containers is an option, but one that doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. The PET seems to be more used to replace glass containers which is where I guess the real savings would be as glass is heavy and creates a cut hazard when it breaks.

      • One other advantage is that “they” will be able to use the methane that will get released in the atmosphere (from the Canadian permafrost or tundra), if indeed global warming happens to the degree that it does.

    • Ronald Brakels


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