Methane is useful as a fuel and an ingredient in plastics and fertilizers, but it is also a greenhouse gas which traps 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide. There has already been an interest in developing innovations to improve the capture of methane and the monitoring of methane emissions. Now, California startup Mango Materials has found a new use for methane – as biodegradable clothing.
Scientists have known for some time that, under certain conditions, different types of bacteria can produce plastics called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs. These bio-polyester fibers can then be harvested from the bacteria and spun into thread, which in turn can be woven into cloth. Although it is currently more expensive to produce PHAs than to make plastics out of petroleum, Mango Materials hopes to reduce the price of producing PHAs to commercially-viable levels by using waste methane to feed the bacteria. Once harvested, they will then use the bio-polyester fibers to create clothing that is fully biodegradable.
Although PHAs can also be used to make packaging and other plastic-based goods, Mango is focused for now on the garment industry, partly because of the opportunities it offers for developing a closed system. Mango CEO and co-founder Dr. Molly Morse envisions a system where, instead of throwing worn clothing away, it would be composted, with the methane released by the composted clothing captured and used to make new garments. Mango Materials currently has a pilot facility at a wastewater treatment plant in Redwood City, California and is in talks with other methane producers, such as dairy farms. The company has also been selected for an award from NASA to explore the production of bio-polymers in a microgravity environment. What other uses are there for biologically-produced, biodegradable plastics?