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Newlight ramping up commercial greenhouse-gas-to-plastic production

By: Roger Renstrom

June 24, 2014

Newlight Technologies LLC is preparing to expand its greenhouse gas-to-plastic manufacturing capacity by ramping up to 50-million-pound-per-year capacity over the coming quarters, said CEO Mark Herrema.

While yet to be proven in high-volume production, the AirCarbon technology has disruptive potential with its removal of greenhouse gases including methane produced from dairy farms, said Darren Beck, director of environmental initiatives in the corporate responsibility innovation pipeline at Sprint Corp. headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.

The strength of the proprietary Newlight technology depends on how effectively microbes convert carbon dioxide or methane to a thermoplastic polymer.

Sprint says it is the first telecommunications company to launch a carbon-negative retail product using AirCarbon.

Sprint is beginning to market covers for protecting Apple Inc.’s iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s cell phones. Each cover displays the AirCarbon logo and a dated imprint, in one case saying, “Pulled from air 5/21/13.”

Separately, computer technology firm Dell Inc. of Round Rock, Texas, is starting to use sleeves of AirCarbon to package its Latitude series notebook computers.

In 2003, Herrema co-founded Newlight, which is based in Irvine, Calif., and handles research and production in nearby Costa Mesa. “Newlight’s combined operations cover multiple acres of space,” Herrema said.

In 2013, after 10 years of continuous pilot and demonstration scale operations, Newlight scaled up its patented greenhouse gas-to-plastic production process to commercial scale at a four-story, multi-million-pound-per-year production facility converting air and captured methane-based carbon from an agricultural digester into AirCarbon thermoplastic, he said.

Sprint began working with Newlight in mid-2013. Beck said the process toward acceptance of the application involved staff consideration sequentially through Sprint’s functions for environmental initiatives, products and accessories.

Whether Sprint expands its use of AirCarbon for device housings or other products “depends on consumer reaction” to the initial cell phone covers, Beck said in a June 5 interview during the Sustainability Brands conference in San Diego.

For some orders, Newlight pre-colors AirCarbon prior to shipping to injection molders, Herrema said by email. For other orders, molders can add color onsite via the masterbatch process.

For the Sprint cases, Newlight ships AirCarbon pellets in both pink and black forms to custom injection molders.

Sprint will sell the protective cases through its website for $29.99 plus tax. Other cell phone cases currently on the Sprint website originate from petroleum-based resin and cost $19-$100. Principal suppliers are Body Glove International of Redondo Beach, Calif., and Otter Products LLC of Fort Collins, Colo., the latter under both its OtterBox brand and recently acquired TreeFrog Development Inc.’s LifeProof imprint.

“Newlight is working with more than 25 partners including a number of brand-name market leaders and Fortune 500 firms,” Herrema said. The aim is to launch AirCarbon products “across a range of market segments including automotive, electronics, construction, packaging, furniture and apparel.”

Herrema anticipates development of  “products that maintain performance, reduce cost and reverse the flow of carbon out of the air” through use of the use of AirCarbon in the extrusion, blown film, cast film, thermoforming, fiber spinning or injection molding processes.

He envisions potential applications now using resins “ranging from linear low density polyethylene and thermoplastic elastomers to homopolymer and impact co-polymer polypropylene and ABS.”

U.S. and international authorities have issued more than 14 patents to Newlight, and the firm has hundreds of patent claims pending.