Newlight Technologies: Plastic from Thin Air

Company Profile: Newlight Technologies, LLC

Newlight Technologies, founded in 2003 has just recently brought its innovative, game changing products to market. Through a patented carbon-sequestration process using biocatalysts, Newlight technologies is able to extract carbon from greenhouse gasses in the air and convert them to AirCarbon, a high performance thermoplastic that serves as a highly viable substitute to oil-based plastics. AirCarbon plastics aren’t simply low carbon, or carbon neutral; requiring less carbon emissions to produce than used in production, AirCarbon is carbon-negative, having the net result of reducing greenhouse gas pollution. Amazingly, eco-friendly AirCarbon plastics are less expensive than oil-based alternatives. To this extent Newlight Technologies succeeds in creating a product that is eco-friendly, high performance, and commercially competitive; a recipe for success.

Check out this quick video from Newlight.

Thermodynamics

It is truely remarkable to consider the thermodynamic challenges to creating a product such as AirCarbon plastics. Qualitatively speaking, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and using it to produce plastics represents a huge decrease of entropy within the system. Gaseous carbon dioxide and methane mixed in the atmosphere have a great amount of positional entropy, with gaseous molecules flying around in the atmosphere near-evenly mixed with a **tail of gasses that compose Earth’s atmosphere. To contrast, consider the neatly arranged polymer chain of carbon molecules that make up AirCarbon, the end result of Newlight’s process. The latter has considerably less entropy.

While the highly significant change in entropy of the system (the carbon used to make the plastics) by no means makes the process of converting gaseous carbon to plastic impossible, it is important to consider the constraint that the whole process is carbon negative — they have to expend less carbon emissions to make the plastic than carbon they sequester and transform into plastic.

Consider Gibb’s free energy equation:

In order for the reaction converting gaseous carbon emissions into carbon polymers to occur in a forward direction, free energy (G) must be negative. Given a large negative entropy (S) characteristic of a conversion from a gas to a solid, there must be an even greater negative change in enthalpy (H). In basic terms, the system must give off a lot of energy, making the reaction highly exothermic.

 

Molecular Structure of AirCarbon

The end product is Newlight’s trademarked AirCarbon, a high performance thermoplastic that can serve as an affordable and effective substitute to polypropylene, polyethylene, ABS, polystyrene, and TPU. AirCarbon is a thermoplastic, it is a plastic polymer that becomes pliable when heated. This makes AirCarbon appropriate for a number of industrial applications and makes it versatile for producing many products in many different ways.

A polymer is a macromolecule composed of small repeating subunits, called monomers. Step 3 of Newlight’s GHG to Plastic process gives an example of a monomer. A polymer is made by covalently bonding many monomers together, which could theoretically be extended infinitely. Through polymerization, monomers can be used to build long polymer chains or three dimensional networks. The example below shows a polymer chain of polyethylene, showing how the individual ethylene molecules are connected to create a continuous chain. An important difference to consider between the individual monomers and the polymer chain in this example is how the double bonded carbons in the monomer units become single bonds in the polymer. For a good introduction to polymer chemistry watch this video.

Because polymer chains are only covalently bonded in long linear chains, there are other molecular forces to account for in three dimensional plastics, primarily Van der Waals forces. Illustrated by the dotted lines, Van der Waals forces are relatively weak attractive forces that occur due to partial charges in polar molecules. Van der Waals forces can hold together lengths of a polymer chain, allowing it to form three-dimensional solids.

This also provides a ready explanation for how thermoplastics can be malleable when heated and solid, or even brittle when cooled. At high temperatures the kinetic energy of the polymer chain is able to overcome the Van der Waal forces holding it in a particular arrangement, so it becomes malleable. Once the polymer is arranged into its desired shape it is allowed to cool, allowing the Van der Waal forces to take hold and set the polymer in its shape. At very cold temperatures, there is less and less kinetic energy in the molecule to oppose the Van der Waals forces making them play a very significant role. At these low temperatures the forces are relatively strong, and make the material brittle, explaining why plastics crack easily at cold temperatures.

So What?

The beauty of Newlight Technology is that it is truly sustainable and truly convenient. Newlight offers a cost effective solution to create eco-friendly plastics, completely turning the tables when it comes to environmental sustainability. Plastic, normally seen as an eco-unfriendly and destructive material can now be part of the solution to pollution and global warming. AirCarbon is biodegradable, making it eco-friendly cradle to grave. It gets extracted from the atmosphere in a carbon-negative process, gets turned into a useful material for human expenditure, and then when it is put to waste (as it inevitably will) it breaks down back to the earth and the atmosphere. What is particularly promising about Newlight is the fact that its products are less expensive than their oil based counterparts, again defying the expectation that eco-friendly means more expensive or less convenient.

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