Methane to Green Materials
Mango Materials transforms harmful methane gas into biopolymers that can compete with oil-based plastics and materials like polyester.
It’s the pioneers who ask questions like: “What if we could convert a greenhouse gas that’s damaging our planet into an environment-friendly alternative to conventional plastic; something that could be used to make children’s toys and clothing?”
In this case, the gas is methane, which the Environmental Defense Fund estimates to be responsible for about one-quarter of man-made global warming. And the pioneer is Molly Morse, chief executive officer of Mango Materials, a San Francisco Bay Area-based company that has developed innovative technologies to convert methane into biopolymers, a competitor to conventional oil-based plastics.
The chemistry, based on the intellectual property from Morse’s Ph.D. research, is a bit complicated. The payoff, however, is straightforward. Instead of allowing methane from landfills, dairy farms and other sources to erode the ozone layer further, Mango Materials transforms the gas into biopolymers that can be used to manufacture children’s toys, shampoo bottles, electronics packaging, clothing and other products.
This win-win proposition arose from an inspiration she had as a young girl in a California elementary school, says Morse.
“My class went on a field trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There was an exhibit showing a large fish tank full of Styrofoam clam shells used for fast food. It was the volume that was used every minute or hour or something like that. Whatever it was, I was completely floored—so much single-use, wasted material going to landfills! I decided right then that I was going to change it. And I am still working on that, three decades later.”
Mango Materials, whose name comes from Morse’s favorite fruit and was chosen to make the company seem approachable and ecofriendly, has made significant progress. Its pilot facility, located at a wastewater treatment plant in Redwood City, California, converts methane into biodegradable plastic substitutes. One version can become toys and packaging. Another, called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), can be spun into thread. Because PHAs are biological versions of polyester, clothing made from these fibers will biodegrade naturally, releasing new methane that can be recaptured and converted into PHAs again. Should clothing made from PHA fibers wind up in the ocean, marine organisms could digest it, unlike the Styrofoam that sparked Morse’s quest.
Morse, company co-founders Anne Schauer-Gimenez and Allison Pieja, and the Mango Materials team are working to make their products cost-competitive with existing plastic products, which are derived primarily from petroleum. It’s a difficult challenge, and Morse now spends much of her time spreading the word about the company’s mission.
“Mango Materials is going after an infrastructure-scale challenge. And our competitors—low-cost, high-volume, persistent, petroleum-based plastics—have many decades of head start and billions of dollars invested. Finding appropriate funding is definitely the biggest challenge.”
Mango Materials is on track for prototype projects, with larger-scale production of its polymers coming in about two years, says Morse. Achieving commercial volumes can level the playing field by making the company’s products a realistic alternative to existing plastics, which are currently cheaper but are harmful to the environment.
“The Mango Materials technology can be price-competitive when at full commercial scale. We just need to get there,” says Morse. Success will be when the company is producing double-digit millions of pounds of its polymers and is cash flow positive, she adds.
Mango Materials has won a number of accolades, including a U.S. National Science Foundation grant. Morse won the Amazon “Women’s First” prize at the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), held in Hyderabad.
“I had a wonderful time in India and it was my first visit there on behalf of Mango Materials,” she says. “Winning the Women First award was an unexpected honor. It has been thrilling to be recognized so widely for all the effort we have put in to make this technology a reality. We still have a long way to go. But this accolade helps to remind myself and my team that what we are doing matters on a global scale.”
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.