Making Your Next Computer from Carbon Dioxide

11/7/07Follow @wroush

Many industrial processes such as coal gasification create carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as waste products. Usually, these gases are vented straight into the atmosphere, where they contribute to pollution and global warming. But what if they could instead be diverted into a chemical process for making some useful material—say, the plastic case of your computer, or the plastic capacitors and resistors inside said computer? Not only would this spare the atmosphere, but it would make plastic manufacturing cheaper by reducing the volume of petrochemicals needed as feedstock.

If you were launching a cleantech company, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better elevator pitch than that. But you’d have to, because that’s exactly the message from Novomer, an Ithaca, NY, startup that came to our attention today because it’s announcing a $6.6 million Series A funding round co-led by Cambridge venture capital firm Flagship Ventures and a new San Francisco venture fund called Physic Ventures.

Novomer’s process, based on a proprietary metal catalyst discovered by Cornell polymer chemist Geoffrey Coates, is ripe for commercialization for at least three reasons, says Flagship partner Jim Matheson. “First, it’s environmentally appropriate,” Matheson says. “It uses a lot less fossil fuel, energy, and water in the production of polymers; it leverages a greenhouse gas as an input for the feedstock; and the plastics have favorable biodegradability attributes.”

Second, in contrast to biologically based polymer production processes developed by other cleantech companies such as Cambridge-based Metabolix, Novomer’s chemistry is “a precision process,” Matheson says. “Because it’s synthetic versus biological, you can pretty tightly control the quality and attributes of the polymers. You can build a variety of products that do things you couldn’t do before, or do things better than what we already have.”

Finally, Novomer’s scientists believe that once they’ve scaled up their process to commercial levels, it will be cheaper than traditional methods of making plastic. The technology already works well at the bench-top scale, according to company president Charles Hamilton. After almost three years of lab work, funded with grants from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the State of New York, it’s now time for Novomer to identify the most profitable applications and get the technology running in larger pilot facility—which is why the Series A round will come in handy.

“We’re a small company now, with 10 people, so I’m not going to be competing on price with the world’s largest chemical companies today,” Hamilton says. “But with the right partners the potential is definitely there to make polymers that will compete on price. The funding will help us figure out exactly which technology we’re going to scale and find great industrial partners and end customers.”

The company has a choice of products to develop because its secret ingredient—Coates jokingly calls it “zinc-based pixie dust”—catalyzes reactions between petroleum-based compounds called epoxides and either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. The CO-based process can be used to create a common class of plastics called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs, glassy or elastic polyesters that are commonly used in food packaging, paper coatings, and medical implants. The CO2-based process, meanwhile, results in aliphatic polycarbonates or APCs—hard, transparent plastics often used in injection-molded and extruded products such as glasses, windows, computer cases, and electronics.

Interestingly, Hamilton says he doesn’t press too hard on the company’s environmental message when he’s meeting with potential partners and customers. “We don’t want to hit people over the head with the green message,” he says. “We want to hit them over the head with on price, performance, scaling, and customized materials.”

Being green, Hamilton argues, won’t by itself get a new enterprise very far in an economy still focused on a single, monetary bottom line. “People can be excited about green innovation, and if that’s what opens doors and makes people listen, I’m all for it,” he says. “But the business case is what’s going to change the way the world makes materials.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Martin Rugamba

    I was just wondering if the CO2 from cars could be used.