Plastic may be fantastic, but it takes an awful lot of petroleum to make it. As such, efforts to cut oil use in the U.S. have produced, among other results, a budding bioplastics industry specializing in plastic manufacturing that relies less on oil for its raw material and more on biomass, carbon dioxide or even microorganisms such as Escherichia coli. Such efforts got a boost Monday when Ithaca, N.Y.–based Novomer, Inc., announced an $800,000 effort co-funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to begin commercializing the company's polypropylene carbonate (PPC) materials, made using a combination of CO2 and petroleum.

By adding CO2, Novomer uses half as much oil as that which is required to make conventional plastics, says Mike Slowik, Novomer's manager of strategic planning and analysis. Conventional plastics include polystyrene (used to make packaging foam) and polycarbonate (for compact discs and eyeglasses).

Novomer's process works by employing a zinc-based catalyst to bond environmental by-products such as CO2 to liquid epoxides (a highly reactive ether) in a reactor that produces the same result as a pressure cooker, albeit with less energy required in terms of temperature and pressure.

The resulting material is a honeylike liquid that companies can use to make plastic products including bottles, clear packaging wrap and  scratch-resistant coatings. Kodak Specialty Chemicals, along with Rochester Institute of Technology, plans to provide Novomer with the equipment and facilities needed to scale up production. With Kodak's help Novomer has been able to make sample batches of up to 14 kilograms at a time, Slowik says. Novomer's long-term goal is to get additional big manufacturers to use its CO2-based polymers in the plastic products they make and sell.

NYSERDA, a state-charted corporation that promotes research and development aimed at reducing New York State's dependence on petroleum, began working with Novomer in December 2008 on a $150,000 feasibility study. The results convinced Novomer to move forward with its work developing catalyst chemicals used to create PPC materials that can be produced with existing manufacturing infrastructures at a competitive cost to petroleum-based plastics.

NYSERDA considered a number of projects aimed at developing, demonstrating or commercializing new energy-efficient technologies for use in the industrial processes in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors before choosing Novomer, according to NYSERDA spokesperson Colleen Ryan. "With about 10 percent of all crude oil and natural gas in the U.S. being used for plastics manufacturing, the benefits of (Novomer's) PPC being commercialized are not only for a greener solution when compared to current materials," she says. "It is also lower in cost and offers higher performance for many applications."