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Covalent: Is it Science Fiction or Fashion

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Discover The Eco-Friendly Fashion Brand Spawned From Microscopic Marine Organisms

You’ve probably seen the magic trick where something appears out of thin air. But have you heard about the stylish new Covalent sunglasses that are the “physical manifestation of greenhouse gas?”

Credit: Newlight Technologies

The idea behind Covalent sounds like something out of science fiction – devising a natural plastic from oceanic microorganisms – but as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. Covalent is a subsidiary of Newlight Technologies, and Newlight created the cutting-edge carbon-negative biomaterial AirCarbon, a key material used in the fashion brand’s initial line of products, which features several eyewear styles, wallets, purses, handbags, totes, and tech cases. 

The genesis of AirCarbon traces back to 2003 when two college students, Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel, friends since childhood, started thinking of ways to reverse carbon emissions. During the course of their research, the two learned how marine microorganisms consume air and greenhouse gas (GHGs) that have dissolved in seawater. This act of food consumption produces an energy storage material known as polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) inside of the microorganisms’ cells. 

It took Newlight Technologies, the company Herrema and Kimmel formed, nearly two decades to find the right method to recreate this bio-derived polymer. To replicate PHB’s creation in the ocean, Newlight places microorganisms into a large, saltwater-filled tank and feeds them the same nutrients – salts, air, and carbon from greenhouse gas, like carbon dioxide and methane – that the microorganisms would have received in the ocean. Using an anaerobic process, Newlight employs biomimetic technology – powered by renewable energy – to transform the microorganisms into a meltable, moldable biomaterial AirCarbon

A natural biodegradable polymer, AirCarbon is a trailblazing invention on several levels. It’s a versatile, eco-friendly material that, as Herrema told Women’s Wear Daily, you “can turn it into everything from fiber, to sheet to solid pieces.” Once purified and dried into a powder, AirCarbon can be mixed with other materials to become a substitute for things like leather and oil-based plastic. 

Before Newlight launched Covalent, and its foodware brand Restore, in 2020 to capitalize on creating AirCarbon, the Southern California-based firm had been making deals with companies like IKEA, Hewlett-Packard, Sprint, and The Body Shop to utilize AirCarbon in their manufacturing.

Products using AirCarbon, Herrema asserts, “are actually removing carbon from the air. Instead of just doing less bad, it’s actually doing net good.” Furthermore, replacing ecologically unhealthy materials like plastics, leather, and fabrics with AirCarbon represents another way to clean up the atmosphere. 

Newlight, however, has an even more ambitious goal – to create carbon-negative products. To successfully achieve this in making AirCarbon, the firm has used renewable power (that they acquire from the power grid as well as captured methane emissions delivered via the natural gas grid). 

By Newlight’s calculations, every kilogram of the natural PHB polymer (aka AirCarbon) they produce winds up absorbing 88 kilograms of CO2e greenhouse gas. Because the amount of carbon dioxide reduced in the air is greater than the amount it creates, AirCarbon has been certified as being carbon-negative by the highly respected carbon accounting firm, the Carbon Trust. 

These days, the term “carbon-negative” is commonly bandied by corporations wanting to appear environmentally aware, making the public a bit wary of such claims. To offer an impressive degree of transparency and traceability, Newlight teamed with IBM on a two-year blockchain project that enables the public to track and get details surrounding the carbon footprint of their Covalent item. Stamped on Covalent products is a Carbon Date, an item-specific 12-digit number. Enter this number on the Covalent website, and people can discover all sorts of information on your item. 

Herrema says that the Carbon Date reflects the company’s goal to “give people the information they need to decide what kind of impact they want to make.” The Carbon Date blockchain technology fits in with research that has shown how people’s interest in environmental issues influences what items they buy. One recent IBM-conducted survey revealed that over 55 percent of consumers consider changing their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. 

While Covalent products are made mostly out of biodegradable materials, Newlight notes the items overall are not biodegradable. The company states this was intentional because they want their products to be upcycled. Newlight’s circular return program (which is different from their return program) allows people to send their item back to Covalent when they are done with them so that Newlight can repurpose the product to make something new. 

Newlight’s groundbreaking work has not gone unnoticed by its peers. The company was hailed as a “Technology Pioneer” by the World Economic Forum, awarded the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and received PC Magazine’s “Technology Excellence Award.” Additionally, AirCarbon received R&D 100 Awards in 2013 as “one of the 100 most significant innovations of the year” as well as winning the Nova Institute’s “Biomaterial of the Year” and Popular Science’s “Innovation of the Year.”

With the recent launch of the Covalent fashion brand, the public has the opportunity not only to discover these ingeniously created products but Covalent’s magical ingredient, AirCarbon.


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