As far as greenhouse gases go, carbon dioxide gets a lot of attention. And rightly so: It sticks around in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years. But another gaseous culprit, methane, while comparatively short-lived, is 25 times more proficient than CO2 at trapping heat. The EPA recommends that “achieving significant reductions would have a rapid and significant effect on atmospheric warming potential.”

Mark Herrema [Photo: courtesy AirCarbon]

On this week’s episode of World Changing Ideas, we explore the concept of methane removal, and speak to one company doing it, Newlight Technologies. Cofounder and CEO Mark Herrema walks us through how Newlight is not only removing methane from the atmosphere, but simultaneously generating an everyday product, called AirCarbon, with the potential to reduce plastic use.

It all started with . . . cow burps. Of course, that’s one of the greatest emitters of methane into the atmosphere—and, contrary to popular belief, they are more culpable for toxic emissions than dung. Reading about bovine belches spurred Herrema to think about a market-driven way to drive down greenhouse gases. “With some quick napkin math, it turned out that each cow was burping about $20 worth of value into the air every year,” he tells us on the show. “If you have a thousand-cow farm, that’s $20,000 of value into the air. Well, that’s a lot of money.”

After a decade of toying with its technology, Newlight landed on success. Newlight sources methane mostly from landfills, coal mines, and agricultural digesters, which catch methane from cow feces. On the episode, Herrema explains the process in depth, but in a nutshell: The company pumps methane through a bioreactor filled with microorganisms that feed on the gas. “They’re growing,” he says. “They’re having a party. They’re also starting to build up this AirCarbon ‘muscle’ inside their cells.”

[Photo: courtesy AirCarbon]

That “muscle” is a molecule that Newlight can extract, purify into a powder, and then melt into pellets. “Once we’ve got the pellets, that’s basically the currency of the old plastics industry,” Herrema says. They form the basis for a nature-based polymer that can replace oil-based plastics used in so many of our products. “Because it’s made in every ecosystem on Earth, it’s an environmentally degradable material, similar to a banana peel or a tree leaf,” he says.AirCarbon products are available in fashion items like sunglasses and wallets, along with kitchenware like drinking straws and cutlery. The latter is now sold at Target and is being piloted at Shake Shack. As if you needed another reason to go to Shake Shack.

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