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bioplasticsMAGAZINE_1303

Report Greenhouse

Report Greenhouse gas-based PHA A Breakthrough In Yield, A New Paradigm in Carbon Capture by Karen Laird When Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel set out in 2003 to develop a technology to convert greenhouse emissions into useful materials, they were armed with optimism, idealism, a healthy measure of self-confidence and the resolution to succeed. Today, ten years, ten patents and millions of dollars in research and development later, they’re the founding partners of Newlight Technologies LLC, a company specialized in high yield greenhouse gasto-PHA conversion and functionalization technologies, that is fast overturning all preconceptions about biopolymers. “When we started, our goal, simply put, was to reverse climate change by using carbon emissions to produce materials on a global scale,” says Mark Herrema. “Not only were we seeking a way to turn carbon emissions into plastics that actually removed more carbon from the air than they produced, we also knew that the only way we could do this on a commodity scale was if our material could out-compete on its own merits, without reference to environmental benefit.” In other words, the plastic materials Newlight produced would need to match oil-based plastics on performance and out-compete on price, definitely not features that had characterized most bioplastics up until now. Technological hurdles Kimmel and Herrema soon discovered that the idea of converting carbon-containing gases into plastics - in this case, PHA bioplastic - was not a new one; indeed, it was an ongoing object of study at companies in countries around the world, from Germany to the US to China. Everywhere, however, everyone kept running up against the same, seemingly insurmountable hurdle: yield. All currently available technologies had thus far failed to deliver a cost-effective and economically viable process 14 bioplastics MAGAZINE [03/13] Vol. 8

Report to produce greenhouse gas-based PHA plastic at scale. “Obviously, more expensive PHA wasn’t something that could move at meaningful scale on the market,” said Herrema. “In addition, we found that the performance of the PHAs produced via the greenhouse gas route needed to be significantly improved to render these functionally competitive with oilbased plastics.” Next to these yield and performance limitations, Newlight also encountered new challenges, such as gas mass transfer conversion efficiency—that is, the amount of energy required to make greenhouse gases chemically accessible. Herrema: “Basically we realized that we were facing the task of having to develop new technology, which meant generating novel methods to approach yield, performance, and mass transfer efficiencies, and capabilities in catalyst engineering, reactor design, and polymer performance.” Breakthrough “It took years, and it was far from easy”, said Mark Herrema. “But we finally cracked it.” The central problem, as Newlight had discovered in the course of its work, was the fact that the company’s proprietary biocatalyst, developed to convert air and greenhouse gasses, such as methane and carbon dioxide into PHA, was controlled by a negative feedback control loop. This meant that when the concentration of plastic produced reached a certain maximum level, it would stop making plastic. To address this, Newlight developed a set of novel catalyst engineering tools, aimed at producing a biocatalyst with a malleable overproduction control switch—that is, the ability to turn off this negative feedback response. By turning off this response, the catalyst would overproduce PHA, thereby fundamentally altering the yield profile of the process. “That, at least, was the theory,” said Herrema. “Getting it to work in practice was trickier. “ Yet ultimately, work it did, and with dramatic results, as illustrated by the immediate 500% increase in yield performance compared to before. The net result was that Newlight had successfully developed a market-driven solution to capturing carbon: technology able to produce plastic from greenhouse gas for significantly less than the cost to produce plastic from oil. In short, a PHA plastic offering a revolutionary value proposition. Herrema: “Explaining it like this makes it sound so simple. But an incredible amount of time and R&D ten years and millions of dollars - went into this development, and it unlocked something tremendous.“ The breakthrough had immediate and profound impact. “We were able to reduce our unit operations by a factor of 3, the company’s capital equipment cost dropped by a factor of 5, and total operating costs were dramatically reduced.” At the same time, Newlight also developed a suite of polymer functionalization tools, and teamed with key partners to improve the performance of its resins, addressing classical PHA functional challenges, such as strength, flexibility, thermal stability, molecular weight, and aging. As a result, the company was able to develop the ability to tailor its materials to meet a wide range of performance specifications, spanning replacements for various grades of polypropylene, polyethylene, ABS, and TPU, in both durable and biodegradable grades. New challenges: sales and capacity expansion In 2012, Newlight began selling its Airflex (also known as AirCarbon) plastics for the first time. Since the commencement of sales, demand for Newlight’s materials has grown significantly in excess of capacity, with over 5,700 tonnes of material now under executed letter of intent for purchase. “The response of the market has been overwhelming - we’ve been inundated with applications. In fact, everything we make is presold,” said Herrema. Moreover, in recognition of the company‘s technological and commercialization achievements in 2012, Newlight‘s plastic was named “2013 Biomaterial of the Year“ by the nova- Institut at an international biomaterials conference in April 2013 (see p.9). Newlight’s customers and product development partners already include some of the largest manufacturers in the world, including Fortune 500 companies, brand-name market leaders, and an billion consumer goods manufacturing company—making everything from chairs and containers to caps and bags. “We’re getting ready for a number of product launches,” said Herrema. “We’re preparing to launch a furniture line in the course of this year.” The company’s new focus is on growth and expansion, in order to be able to keep up with demand and, ultimately, to accomplish its founding objective: to use its carbon-negative plastics as a market-driven tool to reverse climate change. Newlight has its eye on a number of sites for a facility with a multi-thousand tonne per year projected annual capacity of. A first step in this direction is the capacity expansion that Newlight will have in place by the end of this year. “We’ve got the technology,” said Herrema. “The next challenge is to get it out to the market at large scale. That’s our mission now.” www.newlight.com bioplastics MAGAZINE [03/13] Vol. 8 15

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