The material that comes out of the reactor—the largest of which is about a one-gallon (four-liter) metal tank—is a honeylike liquid containing a small amount of the catalyst material, which is later filtered out. Novomer develops these polymers for companies that make plastic products, including Kodak. "It's very comparable to other large-scale polymers used to make computer cases, films and bottles," Hamilton says. Novomer's plan is to use CO2 from businesses in other industries, such as concrete manufacturers and hydrogen producers, as the company scales its production systems.
When Cambridge, Mass.–based Metabolix, Inc., formed in 1992, the bioplastics industry was built "more on hope than anything else," says co-founder and chief scientific officer, Oliver Peoples. The commercialization of bioplastics began in earnest in 2001 when Cargill, Inc., a Minneapolis-based company that provides everything from agricultural products to risk management services, launched NatureWorks, LLC, to develop biopolymers derived completely from renewable resources at a cost on par with conventional plastics.
Metabolix creates plastic pellets using microorganisms such as E. coli. "The organism takes sugar and breaks it down, and the polymer is made inside the organism," he says. Metabolix extracts the polymer and recycles the waste. The pellets can be melted down and reshaped to create a variety of plastic products.
Peoples considers other bioplastics producers to be "fellow travelers," crucial to establishing a good reputation for polymers made from biodegradable and renewable resources. Such solidarity is important, because "it'll be a long time before you'll knock petroleum-based products out of the market," he says. "The bottom line is that people need to know these biodegradable plastics are available."
Efforts to continue making oil-based plastics could be hampered by the growing price of oil, even as the public's consumption of plastic materials grows unabated. "The future need for these materials is so great," Coates says, "there's plenty of space for all of these [bioplastics] companies."