This biotech startup uses methane-eating bacteria to create fully biodegradable polymers.
Mango Materials is a biotech startup from San Francisco that has come up with an ingenious method for transforming methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into plastic. The process involves feeding methane to bacteria, which then produce a biodegradable polymer (polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA). This polymer can be spun into polyester fabric and used for clothing, carpets, and possibly packaging, although the company is most focused on the garment industry right now.
The methane used by Mango Materials comes from a waste treatment plant in the Bay Area, but the company is looking at partnering with other sources of methane, such as dairy farms, in order to get more. The technology creates value for methane, which is a novel idea. Dr. Molly Morse, CEO, told Fast Company:
"If we increase the value of waste methane, that could change the whole story of carbon in the atmosphere, because we’d be collecting it and sequestering it into products... Instead of using ancient fossil carbons to make materials, you’re using something that you already have."
In an interview ahead of Mango Materials' appearance at the SynBioBeta conference taking place right now in California, Morse, whose PhD research led to the establishment of Mango Materials, explained why PHAs make good plastic:
"PHAs can biodegrade in many different environments, including those where no oxygen is present, producing methane, and closing loop to create more polymer from that methane."
If a bio-polymer T-shirt gets tossed in a landfill, it will biodegrade fully. If the methane released by degradation is captured, it can be converted back into new material. If the T-shirt ends up in the ocean (where plastic microfiber pollution is a very serious issue), it will also biodegrade or be consumed by marine organisms that will digest it naturally. In other words, the technology offers a completely closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle cycle. Morse believes that the market is ripe for such a development:
"Current plastics are found in huge volumes and are currently really cheap. The biggest opportunity for biobased products is being able to scale technologies that compete with these traditional materials. There are many excellent companies out there working on biobased products and together we can all flip the script on polymers and materials."
The company's work has caught NASA's eye, and it has been selected for a Phase II STTR award to explore the production of biopolymers in a microgravity environment:
"This could enable the production of biopolymer on Earth and also non-Earth environments, thus creating a closed-loop system for producing biopolymer products on-demand in outer space."
Space exploration notwithstanding, Mango Materials' work is a hopeful indicator of changes to the plastics industry on Earth, something that's desperately needed as non-biodegradable pollution piles up around the planet. Learn more in the video below: