Two childhood friends spent a decade, beginning in college, figuring out how to cheaply make plastic from carbon that’s been captured from the atmosphere.
A decade ago in his Princeton dorm room, Mark Herrema had an aha moment. He read a newspaper story about the rise in heat-trapping methane emissions from dairy farms and decided to do something about it.
He thought — why not pull the carbon from the air and use it to make stuff? A politics major who also studied chemistry, he teamed up with childhood friend Kenton Kimmel,a biomedical engineering student at Northwestern University. They took odd jobs after graduation to fund their research.
“I was a bellhop and Kenton was a valet,” says Herrema, recalling how they worked 14 to 16 hours every day — even holidays — for years to pay their bills and test their ideas in rented lab space.
Industry experts told them it was a fool’s errand. For good reason. Scientists had spent decades trying to capture carbon and use it to make plastic but couldn’t do it cheaply enough. The two friends cracked the code by developing a ten-times more efficient bio-catalyst, which strips the carbon from a liquefied gas and rearranges it into a long chain plastic molecule.
The result? Today, the 31-year-old co-founders of California-based Newlight Technologies have two factories that take methane captured from dairy farms and use it to make AirCarbon — plastic that will soon appear in the form of chairs, food containers and automotive parts. Coming next year: cellphone cases for Virgin Mobile.
“You’ll be able to hold carbon in your hand,” Herrema says of the products, which an independent lab says remove more carbon from the atmosphere than their manufacturing emits. By replacing oil-based plastics, he says he wants to help reduce global warming: “We actually want to change the world.”
“This will be a paradigm shift in our industry,” says Dick Resch, CEO of furniture maker KI, saying AirCarbon will produce the first carbon-negative furniture. KI, which has backed Newlight for eight years and holds exclusive industry rights to its product, plans next year to sell AirCarbon chairs and eventually other products.
“I wish I had been smart enough to figure this out,” says William Dowd, former global director of industrial biotech research and development at Dow Chemical. He says venture capitalists asked him to look at Newlight’s work, but he initially demurred, doubting it would break ground. “I was astounded by what they were able to do.”