For example, the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) emphasises that, over a period of 20 years, methane can warm the planet 86 times as much as CO2 can. Global warming potential (GWP) is a number that enables climate experts to compare methane with CO2. Gayathri Vaidyanathan at Scientific American says:
“Policymakers typically ignore methane’s warming potential over 20 years (GWP20) when assembling a nation’s emissions inventory. Instead, they stretch out methane’s warming impacts over a century, which makes the gas appear more benign than it is…”
Methane is released when coal, oil and natural gas is produced and transported. Another substantial source of methane is animal agriculture, as well as the decay of organic waste in landfills.
According to the FAO, just under half all of GHG emissions from agriculture is attributable to methane (CO2 accounts for 14% of emissions, in comparison). The biggest source of this methane is beef cattle digesting their food (enteric fermentation). This is why beef is so unsustainable.
Giving up beef can be a great way to reduce methane emissions. But there are also other, more technologically innovative ways, to prevent the harm caused by this potent GHG. And a biotech startup in San Francisco has come up with a solution.
Creating clothes out of methane
Mango Materials has found a way to turn methane into clothing. What they do is feed the GHG to bacteria, which then create a biodegradable polymer (polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA). This polymer is then turned into polyester fabric and can be used to make clothes, carpets and perhaps even packaging.
The company is showing the world how to use GHGs in a positive and productive way. Mango Materials takes the methane from a waste treatment plant in the Bay Area, but the company is also considering working with dairy farms as another source of methane. CEO Molly Morse says:
“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.”
Morse also points out why PHAs are such useful materials:
“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.”
What this means is that if a T-shirt created with this technology ends up in a landfill, then it will fully biodegrade. In addition, if the methane that is released can be captured, then it can be re-used to make new T-shirts. So this whole process is extremely efficient. As TreeHugger notes, “the technology offers a completely closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle cycle”.
While a truly sustainable solution would involve methane being entirely phased out, we desperately need technology like this, while we are still depending on fossil fuels and animal agriculture for our energy and food.
Space exploration applications
This technology has also intrigued NASA, which is looking to produce biopolymers in a microgravity environment. It stated:
“The proposed work represents a unique approach that 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.”
In terms of commercial applications for NASA, the space exploration agency says:
“Use of membrane bioreactor (MBR) systems to enable production of various methane fermented products such as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) for use in many plastic-like applications, nutritional supplements, essential amino acids, bioremediation, and products for advanced life support.
For example, sustainable PHAs can be produced and formed into filaments that could be used for 3-D printing applications on the International Space Station (ISS). Also, this MBR system and ultimate PHA production will contribute to the resource recovery and waste processing goals of advanced life support at NASA.”
Moreover, all of these applications have relevancy to Earth as well, since we also need to figure out how to recover resources and efficiently process waste. So what we see here is how the development of a technology on Earth spurs on its use in space exploration, which in turn can encourage more innovative solutions back on Earth. It is this kind of process that will help us to effectively tackle climate change.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs. He is also currently writing a book about the psychedelic drug DMT.