Greenhouse gas emissions and marine plastic pollution are two of the most pressing environmental challenges the world faces at the moment. A California-based startup aims to tackle both issues simultaneously.
Biotech company Newlight, has figured out a way to use a certain strain of microbes to turn methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into a new material that can be turned into biodegradable kitchen utensils such as forks, spoons, and even straws.
The company came up with the idea of turning greenhouse gases into useful things more than a decade ago. “We asked the question, how can we take carbon that would otherwise go into the air, and turn it into useful materials,” says Mark Herrema, CEO of Newlight. “As we looked around nature, we discovered pretty quickly that nature uses greenhouse gas to make materials every day.”
They eventually zeroed in on ocean microorganisms that consume methane and CO2 as food. “After they eat that gas, they then convert that into a really special material inside themselves,” he says. “It’s a meltable energy storage material, which you can purify and then form into various parts and shapes and pieces.”
Figuring that the material could be put to good use, Newlight replicated the process on land, using a tank filled with saltwater and methane from an abandoned coal mine that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere.
After the microbes make the material — which Newlight dubbed Air Carbon — the company extracts it and then filters the material and dries it into a fine white powder that can be molded into different objects.
For its first line of products made from the material, Newlight created Restore — the company’s new foodware brand which makes carbon-negative straws that look and feel like real plastic but would break down naturally over time in case they end up in the ocean. The brand also makes single-use forks, spoons, and other items that are typically made from plastic.