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

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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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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