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: cell phone 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."
Dowd, who is not a Newlight investor, says AirCarbon closely resembles polypropylene and could be a cheaper alternative. He doubts it will do much to reduce global warming, citing the enormity of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants alone.
"It can't be a significant contributor to solving the (climate) problem," agrees Harvard physicist David Keith,adding the supply chain isn't big enough to absorb the 15-plus tons of carbon dioxide emitted per capita each year in the United States. Keith started Calgary-based Carbon Engineering, co-funded by Bill Gates, to capture carbon at industrial scale and use it to make low-carbon fuel.
Still, "it's a step in the right direction," says Brent Ehrlich, products editor of BuildingGreen, a company that studies the construction industry. Ehrlich says AirCarbon could replace a lot of oil-based plastic, adding: "It could potentially add up."
Herrema says his creation is much more than "a drop in the bucket" and is just starting to take off. AirCarbon was chosen as "bio-material of the year" by the 2013 International Conference on Bio-based Plastics and Composites.
Though their journey had many "tough" months, Herrema says he and Kimmel had enough naivete to believe they'd succeed. "We always felt," he says, "that a breakthrough was just around the corner."