06 August 2023 |

Polyhydroxybutyrate-producing machines


Choosing a deal to focus on in this section this week wasn’t particularly difficult. The mammoth $125M equity round (led by Gen Zero) that Newlight Technologies announced takes the cake.

Newlight Technologies uses microorganisms found in the ocean to turn CO2 from the ambient air into a biomaterial that can be turned into alternatives to plastics, fibers, and leather.

This is a very multi-solve climate technology. On the front end, you have a carbon removal technology that the company can monetize via carbon credits. And on the back end, you have a material that can be turned into products that otherwise require emissions-intensive production in their own right; all plastics, most fibers, and most leathers stem from fossil fuels. 

Polyhydroxybutyrate-producing machines

Based out of Huntington Beach in Southern California, Newlight Technologies originally identified ocean-based microorganisms off the coast of California with unique properties ideal for a climate tech business. Specifically, the microorganisms consume methane and CO2 and turn it into Polyhydroxybutyrate (say that three times fast). The company is tightlipped about what the microorganisms are specifically; Otherwise, I’d introduce you.   

Polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) is a highly flexible biomaterial that, owing to its properties (such as its malleability and that it can easily be melted), is ideal for creating various products. Newlight calls the biomaterial it produces ‘AirCarbon’ and primarily has focused on integrating it into foodware products, which major retailers like Target already stock.

Other major brands like Shake Shack, Nike, and H&M have given AirCarbon a look, too. AirCarbon is biodegradable and “degrades as fast as cellulose” if it ends up in the ocean (unlike plastic). 

Beyond the fact that turning carbon into useful products offers additional revenue, the fact that Newlight Technologies can use the carbon it removes in products directly is perhaps even more valuable because of what it helps the company avoid.

Specifically, going the carbon utilization route means the company doesn’t have to bear the operational and financial expense of finding a way to sequester or store all that carbon, for instance, underground somewhere in a Class VI well. 

After discovering the organisms, Newlight Technologies began designing a reactor in which the microorganisms thrive and can convert methane and CO2 dissolved in saltwater into PHB scalably.

The company has been at this for a while; they operated a pilot plant from 2007 to 2017 before building Eagle 3, their first commercial-scale reactor (and the “first commercial-scale operation harnessing microorganisms found in nature to pull carbon out of greenhouse gas and turn it into a resource” worldwide).

Newlight Technologies’ ‘Eagle 3’ commercial scale facility in Huntington Beach

Eagle 3 opened in 2020 and has presumably been a success. There isn’t any public information about its performance or scale, but it stands to reason Newlight Technologies shared performance data with investors, culminating in this week’s $125M round announcement. 

With those funds in tow, I imagine Newlight Technologies aims to open several more commercial facilities to scale the carbon removal side of the business and the output of its biomaterial. 

It’s a good time for expansion, perhaps especially on the carbon removal front. This week, the U.S. government added itself to the list of venerable institutions buying carbon removal. As such, demand for veritable carbon removals is snowballing, benefiting groups like Newlight Technologies that have been at this for a decade.

The net-net

This deal also reemphasizes our focus on biodiversity this month. 

Newlight Technologies’ business is predicated on its microorganisms’ ability to turn CO2 and CH4 into PHB. Now imagine how many other organisms are out there – waiting to be discovered – whose entire life is one miraculous, climate-beneficial existence. 

That’s why biodiversity is so important. The richness of Earth’s biodiversity has always been a wellspring for technical breakthroughs, from penicillin back in the day to carbon removal in the 21st century. What does this tell us? While techno-optimism and biodiversity advocates may seem like two poles of environmentalism and climate work, really, they’re one and the same.