It all started with a field trip: The story of Molly Morse
Molly Morse is the Chief Executive Officer of Mango Materials, a company that uses methane, a potent greenhouse gas emitted from waste facilities, to produce biodegradable polymers. Molly’s story with biodegradability started on a field trip during her elementary school. Molly and her classmates went to an aquarium that had a plastic pollution exhibit. During the exhibit, she had a chance to see the number of Styrofoam clamshell take away containers that are thrown out every hour in the world. Since then, Molly has been haunted by the plastic pollution ghost: “It was something that always stayed with me. These materials are going to stay on the planet forever and ever. What are we going to do about that?”
As Molly progressed through her schooling, she became really interested in construction materials, especially in their afterlife: “When we no longer use these materials, there is not a lot of great things we could do with them.” She pursued her undergraduate studies in Civil Engineering at Cornell University and had the opportunity of taking a “trash class” while she was there. Yes, you read it right! During her “trash class”, Molly learned more about waste management and the design of landfills. She continued her studies and pursued her Ph.D. at Stanford University, putting what she learned in her “trash class” in practice and investigating biodegradable building materials for structural uses.
The pleasures and obstacles of being different and resilient
You might be thinking right now where Molly’s connection with the resilience trait comes in. Well, let’s take a step back and understand her work at Mango Materials. Molly and her team are building something that has never been done before. They are producing biodegradable polymers, polyhydroxyalkanoates to get technical or PHAs for short, which are usually and commonly produced from the bacterial fermentation of sugar. Nothing too crazy so far, right? Wait for it! Instead of using sugar, Molly and her team are producing these biopolymers using methane from waste landfills as a feedstock and utilizing methanotrophs for the conversion. M-E-T-H-A-N-O-T-R-O-P-H-S. They are not hi-tech robots or Transformers, but bacteria that help to convert methane into the desired biopolymers. Methanotrophs are not heavily industrialized and the biopolymers produced (PHAs) are also not widely commercialized. Molly’s work is the definition of a challenge, but it is also a game changer: “You have to be just really focused, roll with the punches, and essentially make it work when things do not go as expected.” In summary, by being resilient and rolling with the punches, Mango Materials is removing a greenhouse gas from our atmosphere and changing the way polymers are produced and disposed.
Being different is something that usually includes some obstacles, which Molly and her team at Mango Materials are used to overcoming: “When something doesn’t work, we find a way to fix it. For us, invention always starts with a problem or with a desire to do something better.” The idea is to get the job done, no matter how. One example of this resilient perspective of Molly can be seen right away in any visit at Mango Materials. In order to produce the desired biopolymers, the methanotroph bacteria need methane and oxygen. Air can be bubbled into the solution as a source of oxygen, but due to the amounts of nitrogen present, the process becomes less efficient. “Large oxygen generators are expensive, and we would use too many bottles, so we started trying to find cheap ways of getting oxygen.” To solve this problem, Molly and her team decided to use inexpensive air separators that were originally manufactured for personal medical uses. “We just hooked a whole bunch of these air purifiers together in series. When large chemical companies come to visit us, they laugh, but it works really well!”
Inventing Green at Mango Materials
Molly’s career path was something very natural and invention was something she has always been captivated during her whole life. “On my dad’s side, I am related to a somewhat famous inventor, so I grew up with patents on the wall of my house. Invention was always something very tangible for me since I was a small child.” With this exposure, Molly grew up contemplating better and new ways of doing things. “When there is a new way to think of a problem that no one is thinking of, there is an opportunity to create something new.”
Molly is applying her different and resilient perspective to solve our world’s plastic pollution challenge. “The global plastic industry and the whole plastic cycle from production to disposal is honestly, kind of a mess. It was not created with the environment in mind.” Molly believes the answer to this problem consists in recreating the whole plastic cycle using biology as an inspiration. Asking the question “What would biology do?” and understanding how biology produces, stores, and disposes of its materials is key in designing sustainable and safer products.
When asked about the application of Green Chemistry, Molly’s reply was a little bit unexpected at first: “We don’t talk about Green Chemistry at Mango Materials, we don’t have to. Green Chemistry and bioinspired designs are part of our culture, it is in our DNA. It is assumed and unsaid”. Slowly, the Green is disappearing, and just becoming the sustainable and regular way people study and do Chemistry every day.
"Green Chemistry and bioinspired design are the methodologies we use to guide our manufacturing processes."
-Molly Morse, Ph.D.