A company has developed a material - made by microbes - that uses methane to make everything from utensils to wallets to glasses. This new material could simultaneously help address the challenges of climate change and ocean plastic.
At a new production facility in California, a 50-foot-tall stainless steel tank is filled with 15,000 gallons of salt water, and inside microbes are turning methane - a potent greenhouse gas - into a new material that could help tackle the twin challenges of climate change and ocean plastic. If the material is made into a disposable spoon and ends up in the sea, it easily degrades and turns into a food source for microbes.
Newlight, the biotech company that created the material, began looking for ways to make use of greenhouse gas emissions more than a decade ago. “As we looked around nature, we discovered pretty quickly that nature uses greenhouse gas to make materials every day,” says Mark Herrema, CEO.
The researchers were particularly interested in ocean micro-organisms that can consume methane and CO2 as food. “After they eat that gas, they then convert that into a really special material inside themselves,” he says. The team decided to replicate the process on land, using a tank filled with saltwater and microbes, with air and methane added to start the process. (The methane comes from sources, where it would otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere.)
When the microbes make the material - which the company calls Air Carbon - the process extracts those cells. Then it filters and purifies the material, drying it into a white powder that can be shaped into objects, like knives and forks and, now, Newlight's first products made from the material are coming to market.
The company has experimented with lots of ideas but elected to concentrate, at least initially, on products where it could have the most impact - such as a replacement for single-use plastic straws and cutlery. “Because it’s a material that’s grown by life and recognized by life, it’s ocean degradable,” says Herrema. It now makes carbon-negative straws that look and feel like plastic. Unlike paper straws, they don’t get soggy. But like paper, the material will naturally break down over time if it happens to end up in the sea.
To tackle another problem, Newlight is launching another brand called Covalent, making wallets and handbags from its material instead of leather. “I believe it’s the world’s first net carbon-negative leather,” Herrema says. The material is durable - it won’t peel or crack like real leather - and unlike synthetic leathers made from fossil fuels, it can easily be recycled. The brand is also using Air Carbon to make carbon-negative eyeglass frames.
Let's hope this very promising set of biotech initiatives can indeed make a deep impact on climate change and the ghastly scourge of single-use plastics.