Start-up Novomer uses CO2 to make biodegradable plastics

Talk about an abundant feedstock. Novomer gets funding to commercialize plastics made from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read
Update: the headline was changed to reflect that Novomer's process does not start with plant material and so does not produce a bioplastic.

Novomer, a Cornell University spin-off, has devised a method for making biodegradable plastics from the common gases carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The company on Wednesday announced that Physic Ventures and Flagship Ventures have invested $6.6 million, which Novomer will use to commercialize its technology.

The honey-colored goo that is the basis of different biodegradeable plastics. Novomer

The plastics it intends to make could be used in a wide range of applications, including supermarket packaging, computer cases, plastic bottles, or foam to insulate buildings, said Novomer president Charles Hamilton. The company joins a growing number of green tech start-ups that are investing in bioplastics and other environmentally friendly materials.

"People have long dreamed about using carbon dioxide in this way but it's very hard to make it react chemically. That's why we put it in fire extinguishers," he said. "That's the breakthrough we have--to make it react without having to put a lot of energy into it."

Research behind the technology, patented by Cornell, was aimed at finding a catalyst that could combine carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to make polymers.

The process, so far demonstrated on a small scale, calls for mixing a liquid metal with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide in a reactor at low pressure. The end product contains about 50 percent of carbon dioxide by weight.

Depending on the feedstock and catalyst, Novomer can vary the output. For example, it may want to produce a more flexible plastic or one that doesn't decompose for a long time.

The company is still testing how biodegradable its plastics will be. It knows that the polymers made by other companies with carbon monoxide--called PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates)--take about six months to decompose. Some of the plastics made with carbon dioxide have shown similar biodegradability, Hamilton said.

Initially, the company is pitching its plastics as a greener alternative to petroleum-based products. In the longer term, it expects to bring down the price so that the products are cheaper and better overall, Hamilton said.

Right now, Novomer is using gases that it purchases in tanks. But its plans call for constructing an eco-plastic facility at a spot that generates a lot of carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, such as a cement plant, a facility that produces hydrogen, or a gasification facility.

"You can't have a cheaper feedstock than carbon dioxide. You actually get paid to use it," Hamilton said.