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California Firm Seeks to Supplant PetroChem Plastics With Methane Emissions

A Costa Mesa, CA-based startup biotechnology company is touting a commercially viable way to make a thermoplastic using captured methane emissions. It said it could eliminate the need for petroleum product-based plastics, which require a significant amount of natural gas to produce.

Newlight Technologies contends it has a better and more cost-effective way to make plastics, and last Friday it signed a 20-year take-or-pay contract with a privately held, Houston-based global plastics and chemicals marketing firm, Vinmar International Ltd., for up to a billion pounds of Newlight's "AirCarbon PHA(polyhydroxyalkanoates)," a PHA-based thermoplastic.

The company, founded in 2003 by two then-recent college graduates, produces AirCarbon by combining what it describes as a breakthrough high-yield biocatalyst with air and captured methane-based greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mostly captured from cow dung piles in dairy operations.

On its website, Newlight states its mission as "replacing oil-based plastics with GHG-based plastics on a global scale." It counts among its customers global firms such as Dell Computer and the Body Shop retail chain. Last year the World Economic Forum named the company one of 24 "technology pioneers,"a designation it had given in the past to firms such as Google and Airbnb.

Newlight CEO co-founder Mark Herrema said the Vinmar contract vaults his company to a "world-scale volume" for its future production. Herrema, along with co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Kenton Kimmel, want to change the way the world makes materials by using GHG as a resource to do it.

"Demand for plastics will continue to grow globally, and AirCarbon addresses an important need in the market," said Kartik Mehta, a Vinmar senior executive. "We believe Newlight's advanced high-yield technology, unique cost structure, and commercial-scale operations position AirCarbon to effectively compete in the market on price and performance, allowing us to market AirCarbon PHA to a broad range of customers."

Academics and others have questioned how much the Newlight technology might influence future climate change programs, but they all admit that every little bit helps. Other companies in California and elsewhere are working on similar technologies for converting waste methane to plastics.

Founded by Herrema, a Princeton University political science graduate, and Kimmel, a Northwestern University biomedical engineering graduate, Newlight spent its first 10 years doing research, according to its website. From that it has developed and patented products that the founders claim can "match the performance of oil-based plastics and out-compete them on price."

When it announced its deal with Newlight, Dell officials, including founder Michael Dell, said it was part of the company’s 2020 Legacy of Good plan. Dell called AirCarbon's "packaging and closed-loop recycled plastics terrific innovations." It is "greener and less expensive to manufacture than oil-based packaging," Dell said.

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