Polycarbonate plastics made from carbon dioxide

"Novomer is commercializing a proprietary catalyst system that transforms waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into high performance, low cost polymers for a variety of applications." (from company website)

Key Differentiators

Plastics are carbon-based materials composed of one or more building blocks strung together into long chains called polymers. Conventionally, the building blocks, called monomers, are formed by distilling crude oil and "cracking" its large carbon molecules into small, two-carbon molecules. These small molecules are then used to create an array of commercial plastics including polycarbonate plastics. The conventional production process is energy intensive and uses hazardous chemicals such as the suspected endocrine disrupting chemical, bisphenol-A, and phosgene, infamous for its history as a chemical weapon. The production of plastic polymers produced by Novomer occurs at rates relevant to industry, at close to ambient conditions, and the final product is even biodegradable. Novomer’s plastics are made with conventional petroleum feedstock, but they only use about half the amount that typical plastic manufacturing requires. The other half is carbon dioxide. The use of a gas to make a solid may seem counter-intuitive, but carbon dioxide shares one fundamental characteristic with petroleum: carbon. Novomer’s process extracts carbon molecules from carbon dioxide, which can be harvested from industrial processes rather than, say, from tar sands or deep-ocean wells. Currently Novomer’s preferred sources are industrial fermentation processes where the waste gas is fairly pure, such as ammonia production or ethanol refining.

Biomimicry Story

Photosynthetic organisms have found a life-friendly route to producing a wide range of complex, polymeric compounds such as polysaccharides and proteins. Solar energy drives a cyclic system that draws carbon from atmospheric CO2. Carbon dioxide doesn't share its carbon atom easily, so nature devised the rubisco enzyme to coax carbon dioxide into bonding with the carbon atom of an organic molecule. This key step of the Calvin Cycle produces the building block from which all other carbon-based compounds in photosynthetic organisms are produced. Cornell University Chemistry Professor Geoffrey Coates took inspiration from the rubisco enzyme and the Calvin Cycle. The result is a mimic of rubisco's reaction center which bonds carbon dioxide to a natural epoxide (limonene oxide) derived from limonene oil, the major compound found in oils of citrus fruit peels.

Challenges Solved

Polymers created by Novomer contain up to 50% CO2 by mass, helping to sequester this harmful greenhouse gas. Waste CO2 also happens to be an inexpensive starting material, allowing Novomer to create cost-competitive products.