Mark Herrema's road to making renewable plastics without oil wasn't easy.
The 31-year-old Princeton graduate set aside his studies in politics and medical school plans to pursue his passion to make a plastic from methane, a colorless gas and a common byproduct on farms. He and his business partner, Kenton Kimmel, slowly built their enterprise working odd jobs like hotel bellhops and valets.
A decade later, private equity firms are backing their company, Newlight Technologies, and they've built two facilities to produce plastic pellets called AirCarbon.
The world produced an estimated 288 million metric tons of plastics in 2012, up from 99 million in 1989. Millions of barrels of crude oil is used to make this plastic, much of which is used only once and then thrown away.
As the world tries to move away from fossil fuels, companies are trying to make plastics from renewable sources, using resources like corn, methane and bacteria.
While the efforts so far are mostly on a small scale, they have the potential to transform how everyday materials are made, from plastic soda bottles to the plastic used in computers and cars, even the plastics used in clothes and furniture.
What Newlight does is take methane, mix it with air, put that into a reactor and then turn it into liquid. A biocatalyst then pulls out the carbon molecules and strings them together. That's then melted down and a spaghettilike strand of plastic emerges, which is finally diced into pellets.
"It's still fun for me to just hold those pellets in my hand because you're going from something that's an invisible gas to something that you're holding in your hand," said Herrema, the head of Newlight, based in Irvine, Calif.
Mining farm wastes and landfills
The goal is to make more environmentally friendly plastics. Conventional plastics often wreak havoc on the environment. They fill up landfills, end up as litter on land or in water, are toxic to many animals and often aren't easily biodegradable. They can survive as litter for thousands of years.
Most plastics are still made from oil sources, and that looks set to continue for a long time, barring a huge breakthrough that's quickly scalable.
The plastic that Newlight created can be used for electronics, automobile parts, beverage caps, packaging and more, Herrema said. The company is due to use the pellets later this year to supply plastic to make cellphone cases for Virgin Mobile.
The environmental benefits of Newlight's approach are twofold. Because methane is 21 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it helps the environment when methane is used up in this process instead of going into the air. Another perk is avoiding using oil to make plastics.
Although Newlight currently uses methane from farms, Herrema said, "landfills are also another great source of carbon that is otherwise going to go into the air either from flaring or venting, even energy production: 100 percent of that carbon goes into the air."
Green Bay, Wis.-based KI Furniture plans to start using the pellets later this year to make plastic chairs. "We have a lot of products that are petrochemical-based. ... Of course, this product [AirCarbon] will turn those products and components into carbon-negative products," said KI CEO Dick Resch, who's also an investor in Newlight.
Methane is not the only way to create bioplastics. In Nebraska, a company called NatureWorks is growing corn, harvesting the sugar and then fermenting it to produce lactic acid, a building block for some plastics. The plastic that comes out is called Ingeo and is a replacement for plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polystyrene, a widely used, conventionally made plastic that often ends up as litter from its use in food packaging.
NatureWorks spokesman Steve Davies says Ingeo ("ingredients from the earth") is typically 60 percent less carbon-intensive than a regular plastic like PET. The firm is partly owned by Cargill, the large agriculture and food company.
So far, Ingeo is used by Dannon for its Activia yogurt in Germany, Stonyfield Farm in its yogurt containers, and Wal-Mart in its deli and vegetable packaging.
"There's an emotional factor with many consumers who don't like petroleum-based plastics, plastics is not a good word in our society, and there's a better alternative," Davies said. "We see a world in the future where there's going to be renewably sourced variants of pretty much everything."
NatureWorks is working with Menlo Park, Calif.-based Calysta Energy to use methane to create plastics, although they are still in the research-and-development phase and it's likely to be several years before they're able to go into commercial production.
But if they're successful, it could boost the shift away from petroleum-based plastics. "Any methane at all that you can capture and prevent going into the atmosphere, especially if you can capture it into a plastic which is long-lived and is not going to be burned anytime soon, it has a huge impact on climate change and environmental sustainability," said Josh Silverman, Calysta's chief scientific officer.
Alan Shaw, Calysta's CEO, said methane from natural gas has several advantages over starch: It's a cheaper source of carbon, unlike sugar there's no oxygen that has to be taken out, and there's an infrastructure to gather it from the natural gas pipes that are already in place across the United States.
"Perhaps the most important is there's no food-fuel debate around natural gas; unfortunately, biomass and sugar carry that label whether you like it or not," Shaw said.
One big plastic buyer is Coca-Cola, which sells around 1.9 billion servings of its drinks every day, many of them in plastic bottles. In 2009, it introduced what it calls PlantBottles, which use plastic that comes from up to 30 percent plant materials (Brazilian sugar cane made into ethanol).
But because most of the plastic Coca-Cola uses is still made from conventional oil sources, it has asked three firms to try to find a plastic that can make fully renewable plastic bottles.
Big markets beckon
One of those companies is called Gevo, based in Englewood, Colo. What it does is take the starch from corn and convert it into a sugar and then a yeast, which through fermentation eats the sugar and excretes alcohol. It ends up with isobutanol, a chemical used in industrial processes.
While Gevo is still in testing mode for making the plastic building block paraxylene, its 18-million-gallon-capacity plant in Luverne, Minn., currently makes the isobutanol that's later refined into biofuel for use in airplanes by the U.S. military. It also hopes to start supplying isobutanol to Total this year for gasoline use.
"The market opportunities are enormous especially as people are looking to switch to renewable resources," said Brett Lund, Gevo's chief licensing officer, who said it can produce isobutanol at a lower cost than its usual sourcing from oil.
Big plastic companies are also getting into the act, although they concede that the vast majority of their materials are still made from oil.
In late 2010, Brazilian petrochemical giant Braskem started using ethanol from sugar cane to make a more sustainable polyethylene, one of the most commonly used plastics. In a $290 million investment, the company now makes plastic raw material that is transformed into things like Odwalla juice bottles, Pantene Nature Fusion shampoo bottles and hard hats for the company Mine Safety Appliances.
"People look at this technology and ... see what's going to happen in the future. Because someday, we're going to say, hey, we're depleting some of our resources, what can we do to really conserve and really reduce global warming?" said James Kahn, Braskem's commercial manager for green polyethylene.
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Start a free trial now.