From Air, to Plastic, to the Office

Original article – EDC

A furniture manufacturer is incorporating a thermoplastic product derived from greenhouse gases pulled from the air.

By Derrick Teal
November 5, 2013

When the reps at KI told me that they could make the Strive seating line out of plastic they had pulled from the air, I thought they were talking out of their…well, another three-letter word that starts with “a” but ends with “s.” Creating something out of nothing? That sounds a lot like an alchemist’s promise to turn lead into gold.

As it happens, though, the process of creating plastic from the air is a real thing. In fact, the basic science has been around for more than 50 years. The reason why no one has incorporated the process sooner was cost. However, KI’s new partner, Newlight Technologies, found a way to make a sound product that was less costly. The result was AirCarbon.

Just as the magicians from the film Now You See Me would tell you, magic doesn’t really exist. So, as the name AirCarbon suggests, the process of creating a plastic product from the air actually means extracting gaseous carbon. “We have a system where an airstream containing a certain level of carbon is introduced to the system,” says Mark Herrema, chief executive officer and cofounder of Newlight Technologies. “The process pulls the carbon out of the airstream and rearranges the molecules into a long-chain polymer. The polymer is a thermoplastic that can replace a number of oil-based plastics, including polypropylene.”

What’s especially interesting about the process is that the best product doesn’t come from just any old carbon in the air, but specific greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are preferred. “One of the main reasons why we’re doing this process is we want to end manmade climate change,” says Herrema. “We prefer to find concentrated carbon dioxide and methane sources, like landfills and agricultural digesters, then capture their emissions and turn them into our material.”

After some additional downstream processing, a thermoplastic pellet is created. Upon request, KI can replace the oil-based plastic in its Strive seating line with plastic from the AirCarbon pellet. This versatile, low-cost Strive line was designed with corporate interiors, education and healthcare markets in mind. “This is a starting point,” says KI’s Sustainability Manager Lisa Evenson. “We plan to eventually use it in more of our products.”

The seating line provides an opportunity for people eyeing sustainability in order to improve air quality and improve productivity to go one step further. “We focus on sustainability, so producing a carbon-neutral chair is exciting,” says Evenson. “This is a great example, too, of things like green construction and green material costs becoming comparable to the costs of standard construction and material. When cost is taken out of the equation, it’s easy for the customer to see the benefits of selecting the green product.”

Despite getting even more detail on the process, it still sounds surreal. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is real. As word gets out about a seating line with plastic derived from carbon pulled from the air, we can only speculate as to how the concept can change not only the industry but the world. Or is that going too far? It might not be if Herrema is correct about the nature of people. “People want to be a part of sustainability,” he says. “They want a product that has zero carbon footprint and actually pulls carbon from the air like a tree. People like to be around materials that can help improve the world.”

You can learn more about how Newlight’s AirCarbon and KI’s Strive seating line have joined together in this venture, and the full benefits of each, by visiting KI’s Greenbuild booth (#700).