AirCarbon: Unlocking the Potential of Carbon EmissionsAirCarbon: Unlocking the Potential of Carbon Emissions

AirCarbon: Unlocking the Potential of Carbon Emissions

AirCarbon co-founder, Mark Herrema is making materials out of carbon emissions. And in doing so, they are changing the world.

“I take inspiration when I look at my AirCarbon bracelet - 20 years ago this was a dream and a hope, to turn invisible gas into a solid material, and now after so many years and struggles and beautiful moments, it is real. It reminds me on a personal level of how much beauty is inside of things that we haven’t yet seen.”
What if it were possible to use nature’s technology to turn a greenhouse gas into valuable materials?
That was the question Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel asked themselves after reading an article on global warming aptly titled 'Getting the Cows to Cool it' in the Los Angeles Times in June of 2003. The article spoke of a cow named Lucy and the immense methane flowing into the atmosphere from her burps.
Admittedly, co-founder Herrema says this was a funny place to start, but this was the catalyst that created Newlight Technologies, and set them on a decade-long journey centred on the belief that they could use carbon emissions as a resource the way nature does — and in doing that potentially create a pathway where everyday products could become a force for change.
When you think of carbon dioxide emissions, there are generally negative connotations that come along with it. The biggest, of course, is their role in climate change.
And while the world was trying to store CO2 in the ground or taxing what was already released, another solution was brewing. The team at Newlight looked at carbon dioxide differently and, across a decade, discovered how to turn an invisible gas into a world-changing, tangible product.

Nature knows best

What is now known as AirCarbon is a biomaterial called PHB — an organically occurring natural material. Nature uses carbon dioxide and methane every day. Trees suck CO2 from the atmosphere to create new leaves, and coral reefs use CO2 in the ocean to grow. It's a carbon-negative process, and the result is PHB.
“PHB is an incredibly beautiful molecule that most people have never heard of. [It] is made in almost all living things on Earth, from plants in the rainforest and microorganisms at the bottom of the ocean to the human body. And it turns out that when you purify it, it becomes meltable, and so now you have a naturally occurring material that can replace plastic. And, since it is made in nature, nature understands it, and can re-consume it like a banana peel, as food for natural microorganisms in soil and water.”
Fast track to today, the team is using renewable energy to create a biomaterial that uses existing greenhouse gases, is compostable, as strong as plastic, and set to change the world.

Harnessing the air: the nitty-gritty

Creating AirCarbon mimics nature by using microorganisms from the ocean on land. In layman's terms; emissions are captured from farms, waste facilities, and energy facilities and fed into a 50-foot-tall reactor at Newlight's Californian-based plant. A bundle of microorganisms strip out the carbon and oxygen and rearranges them into a substance that Newlight calls AirCarbon. Then melted down, cooled inside tubes and sliced into small pellets -— this organic, malleable material can create almost anything.
From cutlery to faux leather, sunglasses and furniture - this biomaterial not only eliminates the need for plastic but reduces the climate-altering greenhouse gases we so desperately need to remove from the air around us.

Letting nature do the recycling

The most powerful part of AirCarbon is that it's made by nature, so nature knows what to do with it. At the end of the material's life, it is consumed by microorganisms and returned to the Earth.
It is this quality that addresses one of the largest issues the world continues to face; waste. Our belief and reliance on recycling as a solution to pollution is misguided, with only a fraction of materials successfully recycled.
“Think about it. You stand in front of three [bin] options: landfill, recycle, and compost-where do you put the paper wrap from your sandwich that is coated in plastic? Did you even know it was coated in plastic? How would you?
“It’s confusing for anyone, no matter how hard you try. We have to change this. Fortunately, nature has a recycling method that it has used since, well, the beginning, and that is biological recycling. Imagine one bin, no need to sort, and everything biologically digests and distils into the original starting ingredient: greenhouse gas, which can be used to make more AirCarbon.”

Out of thin air

Today AirCarbon has developed a range of carbon-negative, compostable products built from pollution; straws, cutlery, plates, sunglasses, bags and more —but they aren’t stopping there.
AirCarbon is working to disrupt other industries’ reliance on plastic and other damaging processes which accelerate climate change. In the next few years, we can expect to see biomedical and personal care applications made from AirCarbon, as well as an animal-free, crop-free protein, a by-product of creating AirCarbon that will aid in reducing the stress agriculture has on the Earth.

Where there is hope, there is a way

In the face of confronting climate crisis reports and widespread political inaction, keeping the flame of hope and inspiration alive is imperative. And, as Herrema says, fixing this situation will be hard, but not impossible.
“We can still change this. I take inspiration in the younger generation, their passion when they march in the streets and demand change; I take inspiration in the vast numbers of companies who have signed up to go to net zero; I take inspiration in the dedication you see in so many people who — despite knowing the challenges — fight anyway.
“The Little Prince says it the best: it is only with the heart that we can see rightly. The past does not have to dictate the future, and we must challenge what was before us if we are going to create a different future”