Novomer Uses Kodak’s Idle Film Plants to Scale Up Its Green Process for Making Plastic

12/14/09Follow @wroush

There’s news out of Boston-based Novomer today offering a measure of encouragement to environmentalists fixated on this month’s climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen. The material science startup, which has venture backing from Kirkland, WA-based OVP Venture Partners and other firms, says it has embarked on a partnership with Kodak to use the 117-year-old company’s chemical manufacturing facilities in New York State to make plastic from carbon dioxide.

Using an $800,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which supports green-energy commercialization projects in the state, Novomer will put its proprietary catalysts to work in Kodak’s chemical reactors in Rochester, NY, to convert petroleum products and carbon dioxide into polypropylene carbonate (PPC) materials like those used in soda bottles, food wrappers, and various films. Novomer’s plastic manufacturing process uses 50 percent less energy than traditional methods, while at the same time sequestering waste carbon dioxide in the finished products.

“Traditional plastics are 100 percent fossil-fuel-based, and ours are 50 percent CO2-based and 50 percent fossil-fuel-based,” explains Mike Slowik, the company’s manager of strategic planning and analysis.

At Kodak “they have a long history of great chemical engineering and scaling up manufacturing, and we’ll be able to use their reactors to make larger quantities of material” than Novomer could make at its own R&D facility in Ithaca, NY, Slowik says. “They’ll make a resin that we can put through their extruders to make films, and they also have great equipment for testing the materials’ properties.”

Through the Kodak partnership, Novomer will get test materials into the hands of prospective large-scale customers much faster than it could have otherwise, Slowik says. “It means a lot for the company to be able to use equipment that’s already in place at Kodak, where they have extra capacity,” he says.

“It’s a win for both companies,” Slowik adds. The rising popularity of digital photography has led to a steep dropoff in the production of camera film, Kodak’s traditional business. In June, Kodak announced that it would stop manufacturing its Kodachrome 25 film due to slack demand; it was the third Kodak film line to get the axe in the last three years.

One advantage of Novomer’s synthetic plastics, made using a proprietary metal catalyst discovered by Cornell polymer chemist Geoffrey Coates, is that they can be manufactured using existing but idle equipment like Kodak’s, unlike “bioplastics” made from organic feedstocks. “We use catalyst technology that the chemical industry is very familiar with, so we can drop it into existing ‘pots and pans,’ as we say, whereas the bio-based feedstocks and fermentation processes really require dedicated facilities and infrastructure,” says Slowik.

The grant Novomer won to carry out the pilot plastic production in Rochester covers only PPC materials, not the polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs, that are often used in coatings and medical implants and that Novomer is able to produce from another pollutant, carbon monoxide. The materials produced in Rochester could be used in “bottles, containers, films, wrappers for food, and potentially as a replacement for polystyrene, PVC, and materials along those lines,” says Slowik. “We think the potential is huge. The packaging industry alone uses 100 billion pounds of plastic a year.”

Novomer gets its carbon dioxide from industrial suppliers, who get it from waste sources. In the future, Slowik says, Novomer facilities could be placed near coal-fired generating plants or cement plants, rich sources of carbon dioxide that would otherwise enter the atmosphere and contribute to greenhouse warming.

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

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