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Making Plastic Out of Pollution

An emerging crop of companies making plastic out of renewable resources and waste products promises to deliver an environmentally friendly harvest



Courtesy of Novomer, Inc.

Plastics have dramatically changed the way we live, allowing us to fabricate new and innovative tools, containers and even replaceable body parts like hips and knees, while also spawning a host of undesirable by-products, including nonbiodegradable trash and pollution from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Now an emerging industry is trying to polish plastic's environmentally tarnished image by using waste products such as carbon dioxide and Escherichia coli bacteria to make biodegradable and renewable polymers.

This trend continued Wednesday when Novomer, Inc., an Ithaca, N.Y.–based company that manufactures ecofriendly plastics and polymers using CO2, announced that it had raised $6.6 million in a fund-raising campaign (led by venture capital firms Physic Ventures in San Francisco and Flagship Ventures in Cambridge, Mass.). The company says it plans to use the new monies to expand both its production capacity and development efforts. This new cash infusion comes on the heels of small business grants from the National Science Foundation ($500,000) and the U.S. Department of Energy ($100,000) for continued development of its polymerization catalyst systems.

The key ingredients in Novomer's polymer-making process are metallic catalysts, such as beta-diiminate zinc acetate, which bond greenhouse-gas causing molecules such as CO2, as well as carbon monoxide and other renewable materials, to liquid epoxides.

"Plastics are more important right now than at any other point in history," says Cornell University chemistry professor Geoffrey Coates, Novomer's co-founder and chief scientific officer, who notes that industry has produced more plastic every year of the past 50 years. This includes not just commodities like milk jugs or CD cases, but also specialized biomedical devices such as heart stents and emerging technology such as solar cells. Whereas surgeons today may hold broken bones together with metal screws that subsequently must be removed after the break is healed, bioplastics hold the promise of surgical materials that serve the same purpose but safely degrade within the body negating further surgery.

Technology commercialization firm KensaGroup, LLC, formed Novomer in 2004 based on renewable polymer research conducted by a team of Cornell researchers. The group was led by Coates and former graduate student Scott Allen, a Novomer co-founder who is now the company's director of research and development.

Prior to its work, polymers based on biological materials were possible but they were more of a novelty because the prohibitive manufacturing cost discouraged large-scale production. Novomer's process is different from other bioplastic-making efforts in several ways, primarily because it is done at room temperature using relatively little energy, says company president, Charles Hamilton. This means that fossil fuels are not burned during the process. "We combine liquid epoxides with carbon dioxide in a reactor that's like a pressure cooker," he says. "Throw in a catalyst, and those two parts come together like a zipper. You create a very long chain of epoxides bonded to carbon dioxide."

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."

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