These Companies Are Making Physical Goods Out of Thin Air

The Next 50 Years explores the technologies changing and improving our world.

What if our everyday household items were made out of thin air? 

If that sounds like a pipe dream, it’s not—a growing number of technologies are using carbon emissions from industrial processes to create wallets, shampoo bottles, and straws. 

It’s called carbon recycling, and companies like Lanzatech and Newlight Technologies are leading the charge, a new Motherboard documentary details. 

These technologies take carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses sequestered from industrial processes and turn them into chemicals for product creation through commercial reactors. 

Lanzatech uses industrial facilities, bolted onto other infrastructure like steel mills and landfills, to collect these emissions and break them down into ethanol using bacteria. That ethanol is then used as a key ingredient in bottles, synthetic fabric materials, and jet fuel. 

“If we turn greenhouse gas into a product that performs great, meets the price expectation of a consumer, but helps improve the environment, then you don’t have to say, ‘Oh, please do a good thing,’ or ‘You should or shouldn’t do something,’ this is just a better product,” Mark Herma, CEO and founder of Newlight Technologies told Motherboard.

Using industrial emissions of CO2 and methane, a greenhouse gas that’s approximately 86 times more potent than CO2 in its warming potential over 20 years, Newlight has created a synthetic, biodegradable material called AirCarbon. It’s made of recycled emissions and can degrade as quickly as any other organic matter; it’s an overall good for atmospheric emissions and waste volumes. 

Better yet, it’s produced with blockchain; customers can track the life cycle of the product to see where the emissions from their product would’ve otherwise ended up. 

“I believe 50 years from now, there will be no more waste,” Lanzatech CEO Jennifer Holmgren told Motherboard. “Everything will be reused. We will be like nature.”

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This series is supported by Delta. Motherboard retains complete editorial independence.

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