Flo Materials makes endlessly recyclable plastics
hoes, carpets, and packaging are each made from several types of plastic, which makes them hard to recycle. In addition, some types of plastic start to degrade after being repeatedly recycled.
The start-up Flo Materials, founded in 2021, is trying to commercialize a group of vitrimer plastics called enamine covalent adaptive networks (ECANs). These can be recycled endlessly, even if they are combined with other materials.
The company, which is located in Berkeley, California, says its recycling process, based on research from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, breaks down the plastic to monomers that are just as good as virgin materials. It also removes colors, contaminants, and additives.
Flo CEO Kezi Cheng says that like high- performance thermosetting polymers, such as epoxy or polyurethane foam, her company’s materials are resistant to heat and chemical degradation. The bonds that make thermoset materials strong also make them hard to recycle, but Cheng says ECANs can be recycled both chemically and mechanically.
Flo’s first market is eyewear. To make glasses, companies cut a design out of a sheet of cellulose acetate and discard the rest. If eyewear manufacturers used ECANs, Cheng says, her firm would be able to transform discarded material back into brand-new plastic, regardless of the color or style of the original glasses.
Flo originally focused on making rigid plastic sheets for the eyewear industry, but Cheng says the company recently developed methods for making other forms of plastic, such as fibers or foams. She says going all the way back to monomers also means the company can potentially turn recycled plastics into different polymers.
“Maybe in the first life, those monomers were made into something like a foam,” she says. “But in the second life, those monomers could be made into something like a fiber.”
That flexibility makes the technology applicable to a wide range of products, Cheng says. She adds that the company is trying to develop plastic formulations that can drop into existing manufacturing processes, which will make it easier to replace multiple types of plastics.
Flo is in the process of raising seed funding. The company is setting up its first two pilot projects with eyewear brands for next year. The projects will process about 400 kg of material, enough for about 4,000 pairs of glasses. The company wants to expand its capacity to 10,000 kg within the next 2 years.
Flo Materials hopes to deploy its endlessly recyclable plastic material first with eyewear manufacturers, which typically cut glasses out of rigid sheets of plastic and discard the remainder.
Credit: Flo Materials
Jupiter Ionics synthesizes ammonia with fewer greenhouse gas emissions
MMaking ammonia for nitrogen fertilizers releases an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Jupiter Ionics, a start-up that spun out of Monash University in 2021, hopes to make the chemical without greenhouse gas emissions, using only air, water, and renewable energy.
Conventional ammonia is produced via the Haber-Bosch process, which uses high temperatures, pressure, and a catalyst to combine nitrogen from the air with hydrogen made from methane or coal.
Some companies are trying to make low-emission ammonia by switching to hydrogen made by electrolyzing water and by using renewable energy to combine hydrogen with nitrogen. Jupiter chief scientific officer and cofounder Douglas MacFarlane says there are several challenges to that approach.
The Haber-Bosch process typically runs continuously, but renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, are often available only intermittently. That means fossil fuel sources of energy may need to supplement systems that rely on a continuous process. In contrast, Jupiter’s small-scale electrolytic cell can rely solely on renewable energy because it can turn on only when solar or wind energy is available.
In the company’s cell, water is fed into the anode, while nitrogen is fed into the cathode. At the anode, hydrogen ions are catalytically stripped off of water molecules, releasing oxygen. At the cathode, nitrogen reacts with lithium in the cell’s electrolyte to form lithium nitride. When the electrolyte transports hydrogen ions from the anode to the cathode, the ions break the lithium nitride into lithium ions and ammonia.
MacFarlane says scientists have known about this route to synthesizing ammonia for decades, but his lab developed a component of the electrolyte that made the process much more efficient. “We can achieve 100% conversion of electrons, effectively, to ammonia,” he says.
Other companies are also exploring alternatives to the Haber-Bosch process. The start-up Nitricity is using a plasma reactor to produce ammonia using solar energy. Nium, another start-up, says it can produce ammonia at low temperatures and pressures with renewable energy by using a new type of catalyst.
The electrodes in Jupiter’s current device measure only about 100 cm2, but the company is scaling up. It hopes to eventually produce a metric ton of ammonia per day on large farms using shipping container–size plants.
The electrodes in Jupiter Ionics’ ammonia synthesis cell currently measure about 100 cm2, so the company has to scale up the device by a couple of orders of magnitude to reach a size that could serve a large farm.
Credit: Jupiter Ionics
Quino Energy is making cheaper flow batteries
WWorking on the next generation of a novel technology that itself isn’t widely adopted yet could be disheartening for some entrepreneurs. Not so for Eugene Beh, CEO and cofounder of Quino Energy, a US start-up developing an organic electrolyte for flow batteries that promises to provide stationary energy storage for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun isn’t shining.
Unlike lithium-ion batteries, which store energy in solid electrodes, flow batteries store their energy in liquid electrolytes located in two tanks. The electrolytes are circulated to enable ion exchange between them.
Standard flow batteries use vanadium salts—a relatively expensive material—as an electrolyte. Although vanadium flow batteries are already cheaper in some applications than lithium-ion batteries, they could be made cheaper still by replacing the vanadium with organic quinones, Beh says. Quinones are a family of molecules that can be easily switched between reduced and oxidized states so that they hold a charge and then discharge it. Quino proposes using organic quinones in a liquid solution as one electrolyte and a solution of ferrocyanide as the other.
Examples of organic quinones are vitamin K1, also called phylloquinone, and dyes such as 1,2-dihydroxyanthraquinone, also known as alizarin. Quino plans to source its organic quinones from a company that makes them from phthalic anhydride, a low-cost intermediate of unsaturated polyester resin.
Beh has demonstrated he is in it for the long haul. His involvement in the technology dates back to 2015, when he was a chemistry postdoctoral scholar at Harvard University. Since Beh and three Harvard researchers founded Quino in 2021, the firm has raised $5.25 million from investors and scooped up $4.6 million in US Department of Energy grants.
Quino’s business plan is to make and sell its electrolyte. The firm aims to close its series A funding round in the coming months so that it can build a 100-metric-ton-per-year quinone electrolyte plant that could be up and running as early as the end of 2024.
CEO and cofounder Eugene Beh (left) and Chief Technology Officer and cofounder Meisam Bahari of Quino Energy show samples of their organic quinone and ferrocyanide electrolytes.
Credit: Quino Energy
Sóliome blocks ultraviolet rays with a molecule found in human eyes
Sóliome chief scientific officer and cofounder Anthony Young (left) with CEO and cofounder Micah Nelp at their laboratories in San Francisco
IIt was the week after experiencing a terrible sunburn from a 2021 trip to Mexico that Sóliome’s CEO and cofounder, Micah Nelp, first thought of using the product of a human enzyme as sunscreen. At the time, Nelp was studying enzymes for his postdoctoral studies at Princeton University and knew that the tryptophan metabolite kynurenine, which is concentrated in the lens of the eye, was a fantastic ultraviolet absorber.
By virtue of occurring naturally in the human body, kynurenine does not require testing on animals to be used as a sunscreen. “We figured if we could get this amino acid in a larger molecule, we could give that protection that our eyes naturally already have to our skin as well,” Nelp says.
Sóliome is now making that larger molecule in its laboratories in San Francisco by attaching kynurenine to a peptide. “This allows us to adjust the size, hydrophobicity, acidity, and binding characteristics,” Nelp says.
Sóliome’s sunscreen provides broad-spectrum protection, is photostable, and is biodegradable. The company is working on a range of sunscreens with SPF ratings of between 15 and 30, as well as a compound that would make sunscreens water resistant.
The company is on track to become the first producer of sunscreen made with peptides. Typically, sunscreens contain one or more of eight compounds: avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide.
“It is so different from the heavy, greasy feel of existing sunscreens. Our peptide spreads beautifully on the skin and feels like it isn’t there,” Nelp says. “We wanted to start with a daily-wear product that was incredibly light and wouldn’t interfere with other products, like makeup, which is a major issue with existing products.”
Sóliome claims that the ingredients in its sunscreen are so safe you can eat them. “My favorite one tastes slightly salty and has a hint of umami,” Nelp says.
Sóliome has raised $525,000 from the venture capital firm SOSV. The company has also been awarded $255,000 in funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF). It is hoping to secure additional NSF funding in the coming weeks.
The company estimates that it is already able to make its sunscreen at the same cost of some existing products. Sóliome is now working with partners to develop its first commercial product and is contemplating seeking major funding.
Umaro Foods turns seaweed into bacon
Umaro Foods’ bacon is in 140 restaurants around the US, including more than a dozen bodegas in New York City.
Credit: Umaro Foods
TThere’s nothing quite like a crispy piece of bacon. But the pork industry releases more greenhouse gases than the entire country of Germany each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. While some companies make plant-based bacon, the start-up Umaro Foods says existing products lack the key characteristic that makes bacon delicious: crispiness.
Umaro says it’s making a better bacon substitute out of seaweed. The company extracts a hydrocolloid gel and protein from red seaweed and recombines them to make its product. The hydrocolloid gel is infused into a dough of the protein mixed with sunflower and coconut oil. The gel traps the oil in tiny pockets, which allows the liquid vegetable oils to perform like solid fat found in meat. CEO and cofounder Beth Zotter says the result is crispy and very fatty. “The hydrocolloid gel is a sponge, and the fat is the water,” she says. “It’s mostly fat.”
Zotter started the company in 2019 after concluding that seaweed was the best way to sustainably provide protein for the world’s growing population. She says seaweed is incredibly productive, generating more than five times as much protein as soy per hectare. And she believes the size of the ocean means seaweed farming will be feasible to scale.
Companies like Dutch Weed Burger and Akua agree. They’re both making meat alternatives using seaweed as an ingredient.
“By moving our protein supply from land to sea, we can sequester vast amounts of carbon, simply by relieving the pressure on our land and allowing forests to regenerate,” Zotter says.
Other companies are making meatless bacon using other protein sources. In June, MyForest Foods raised $15 million to commercialize fungal bacon. La Vie, which also mimics animal fats by trapping vegetable oils between hydrocolloid gels, raised $28 million last year to produce bacon from soy protein.
Umaro has raised $4 million in funding, including a $1 million investment raised from Mark Cuban on the ABC business-pitch show Shark Tank. Umaro’s bacon is now in more than 140 restaurants, and the product will be in a burger chain starting next year. The company is hoping to use its technology in other meat substitutes but hasn’t decided which product to make next.