A startup is moving ahead with an efficient method to make biodegradable plastic.
By Prachi Patel
Why: Biodegradable plastics that aren't made from petroleum offer several environmental benefits.
Key innovation: Its polymer-manufacturing processes use carbon dioxide to make plastics needed for packaging.
A cobalt-based catalyst developed by founding chemists from Cornell University facilitates the reaction of petroleum compounds with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide to form common plastics used in packaging, electronics cases, and absorbent materials. The process could put carbon emissions from power plants and industry to commercial use, rather than requiring costly, unproven technology to sequester them underground.
Novomer hopes to compete with producers of conventional industrial polymers made entirely from petroleum. The company claims that its process could reduce the variable costs associated with the plastics industry by 30 percent by using ethelyne, which is derived from ethane that has recently become more abundant due to the burgeoning shale gas mining industry in the United States, rather than propylene, which is commonly used today.
Last summer, the company received a $20.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to commercialize its polymers, which are composed of up to 50 percent carbon dioxide by weight. The material could be used for coatings on food and beverage cans, among other applications. The company has teamed up with chemical maker Albemarle and Eastman Kodak to scale up its process and manufacture larger quantities of the material for customer testing.
Challenges and Next Steps:
In addition to developing its carbon-dioxide-based products, Novomer is also looking to partner with chemical manufacturers to commercialize its process of using ethylene and carbon monoxide to manufacture acrylic acid, used in diapers and many other products, and butanediol, which is used in the manufacture of plastics and fibers. If it finds the right partner the company hopes to begin production in 2013 or early 2014.