Mimicking Plants to Make Plastic
By Blaine Brownell
In recent years, the desire to emulate botanical processes for environmental benefit has inspired "design similes," such as cities that behave like forests, buildings that act as trees, or products that operate like plants. Although such comparisons serve to promote ideal goals, they are difficult to put into actual practice.
Irvine, Calif.-based Newlight Technologies has found a way to achieve the latter objective, with a plastic that is made by mimicking the material production method of plants.
Using Irvine, Calif.-based Newlight Technology's AirCarbon -- which, for the most part, behaves like its petroleum-based counterpart -- KI made its Strive (shown) and Grazie chairs with conventional tooling and minimal testing and adjustments to temperature and cure time.
Newlight's GHG-to-Plastic process isolates, polymerizes, and reassembles carbon and oxygen elements from greenhouse gasses into a long-chain thermopolymer -- essentially converting gasses into solids. The resulting plastic resin, AirCarbon™, can be used in lieu of petroleum-based plastics in formats ranging from films to injection-molded components.
According to Newlight, AirCarbon's environmental benefits are matched by its economic advantages. The company has partnered with Green Bay, Wis.-based furniture contract company KI to fabricate the first industrially-produced carbon-negative chair, which was on display at Greenbuild 2013. Remarkably, AirCarbon is also economically competitive with conventional plastic. "As most sustainable solutions typically cost more and are not as strong as standard materials, the surprise here was just the opposite," says Norman Nance, vice president of marketing, architecture and design, and environmental initiatives at KI.
1:1 -- The weight of KI's new line of chairs, including plastic and non-plastic parts, to the carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gas sequestered by the new polymer from which it is fabricated.
AirCarbon is recycled and biodegradable. KI is exploring the notion of a fully compostable chair, Nance says, though it has no plans for one in the near future. (Grazie, shown)