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Carbon Dioxide Turns Useful

A new breed of innovative start-up companies are finding ways to convert CO2 into high value materials, simultaneously reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the environment and giving manufacturers a greener alternative to fossil-fuel-heavy production methods.

While most of the world is looking for ways to reduce their carbon offsets, a few innovative companies are finding ways to take advantage of this vast and otherwise wasted resource.

From plastic bottles and paper to concrete, vinyl sidings and fuel, researchers are transforming carbon dioxide from a destructive planetary force into a stream of valuable renewable products.

Although most of these companies are in the early stages of development, they are quickly gaining attention and venture capital funding from an intrigued environmental community and those companies that would like to turn their CO2 waste into something of value.

Zinc Based Fairy Dust

Novomer, a materials company based in Ithaca, New York, is one of the most highly publicized players in this emerging field. The 4-year-old company, led by president Charles Hamilton, is developing a line of high-performance, biodegradable plastics, polymers and other chemicals using carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The company was built around technology developed at Cornell to use CO2 as a building block for chemicals to produce plastics.

“We can currently make materials that are 50 percent CO2 by weight,” says Hamilton, who notes that most plastics are made with 100 percent fossil fuel, and that nine percent of the world's fossil fuels are used to make plastic. “With this process, we cut that use of fossil fuels in half.”

Along with commercial applications, such as plastic bottles and packaging, the materials Novomer is developing can be used in industrial applications requiring a binder that decomposes rapidly, cleanly and is environmentally friendly.

The benefit of such a process is twofold, he notes. “It captures CO2 that would otherwise be released into the environment, and that CO2 replaces the need for fossil fuels. “

Because the materials are biodegradable, the captured CO2 will eventually be released back into the atmosphere. However, the biodegradability prevents the production of new CO2 and eliminates the problem of landfills piled with empty plastic bottles and packaging materials that will outlive us all.

“You don't need a detergent bottle that lasts 1,000 years,” he says. “Our material breaks down in compost conditions in six months.”

Novomer's team is also looking at producing materials that would have longer life spans and could be used in applications such as plastic coatings for building materials, foam insulation, and coatings that require a non-biodegradable or longer life profile.

The trick of the technology is getting the CO2 to react with other chemicals to convert it to a useful feedstock for materials without requiring a lot of energy. “It's difficult to make CO2 react,” Hamilton says of the chemistry.

After years of trial and error, Novomer has found a chemical that works as an effective catalyst with a mixture of liquid epoxide and raw CO2. “We think of it as zinc-based pixie dust,” he says. “You take a bit of the catalyst and sprinkle it on mixture and the reaction is like a pressure cooker.”

The catalyst zips the epoxide and the CO2 together, forming a polymer with the consistency of honey. What's impressive about Novomer's process is that it only requires 150 psi to convert the mix to a polymer, which means it is more easily scalable because it requires less energy, and thus less cost.

Now the company is looking for reliable sources of CO2 and epoxide to scale up their production.

Concrete manufacturers make the cleanest CO2, according to Hamilton. “The tricky bit is sourcing the epoxide near the source of the CO2,” he says. The company is in talks with chemical companies about forming partnerships to move the technology forward, and it's already received funding and support from Physic Ventures, the San Francisco based venture capital firm focused on supporting science-based, consumer-directed health and sustainable living companies. Physic is supported by several global homecare products brands, including Unilever, which could stand to benefit from such an innovative technology.

“These companies are interested in alternatives to 100 percent fossil fuel based materials,” Hamilton notes.

Andrew Williamson, director of Physic Ventures agrees. “We are looking for products and technology that enable a sustainable lifestyle,” he says.

Physic was drawn to Novomer's green chemistry because it can convert CO2 into a biodegradable polymer without using a lot of energy or water, and it doesn't produce toxic by-products, says Williamson. “In our scouting for green technologies, Novomer is the best company we've seen in a while.”

But it is certainly not the only one. There is a growing industry emerging in which chemists with a green frame of mind are applying scientific innovation to the capture and applications of CO2.

Paper, Concrete, Fuel

Calera Corporation in Los Gatos, California, for example, has developed a nature-mimicking process that converts CO2 into cement - which is a product known for producing high levels of CO2. By removing CO2 from the atmosphere in the process of making a product that usually produces a lot of CO2 using other methods, the company is in a position to help reverse human-caused global warming and ocean acidification.

The company's founder, Brent Constantz, has stated that its able to sequester half a ton of CO2 in every ton of cement it makes.

It's All About the Chemistry
Every company produces some level of waste. The experts from Carbon Sciences and Novomer share their advice on how to convert that waste into a valuable commodity.

Every waste stream can be a product for someone else if it’s properly manufactured, treated and corrected. “You have to break it down to the chemistry, and what could be done to it to make it something else,” says Derem McLeish, CEO of Carbon Sciences.

Start with technology. “Finding the right technology to transform waste streams opens up new possibilities for material development,” says Novomer’s Charles Hamilton.

Partnerships can bring good ideas to fruition. “The real challenge after finding the technical tools that open the door to new material solutions is proving the technology at lab scale and then to commercial scale with partnership development,” Hamilton says.

Look to other industries and industry leaders for examples. McLeish notes that the paper industry has made great strides in reusing pulp; and chemistry companies have found ways to combine waste chemicals with other ingredients to create feeder stocks for new chemical processes. “Green technology gives a brand new perspective to manufacturing,” he says.

Carbon Sciences is another company gaining a lot of media attention for its process of turning CO2 waste into carbonate, and eventually into fuels. The company, led by CEO Derek McLeish, is focusing on two applications for its technologies. In the near term, says McLeish, the company is working on a CO2-to-carbonate technology that combines CO2 with industrial waste minerals and transforms them into calcium carbonate, a high value chemical compound used in paper production, pharmaceuticals and plastics.

“In your everyday life, you touch many products that either contain calcium carbonates or use them during production,” he says. Carbon Sciences' technology is capable of capturing 440 kilograms of CO2 for every ton of precipitated calcium carbonate.

“This technology offers two benefits: it lowers the cost of production and it is carbon neutral,” he says, noting that it would enable paper plants to transform their own CO2 emissions into precipitated calcium carbonate for use in paper production. “It turns the paper industry into a neutral CO2 emitter instead of a gross CO2 emitter.”

The company is currently demoing the process and scaling up a pilot plant to showcase its applications. McLeish expects to be in full production within three to four years.

The company's longer term development plans focus on transforming CO2 into basic fuel building blocks required to produce gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and other fuels.

Part of the Solution

While companies like these are not an end-all solution for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they are a bold step in the right direction.

“You can't bet on the regulatory environment to give carbon credits forever,” notes McLeish. “Technology got us into this mess, now technology has to get us out.”

The innovations of the leaders at Carbon Sciences, Novomer and others are creating alternatives that can make products manufacturers leaner and greener, and offer another avenue for reducing the harmful impact of carbon dioxide on our world.

“We don't see ourselves as taking on all the CO2 in the world, but we do see ourselves helping to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” says Hamilton.

“Everyone wants to reduce the CO2 of their products,” agrees Williamson. “If we can find ways to sequester CO2 rather than make CO2, we've turned an environmental loss into a gain.”

Based on the innovations of these companies, it's a trend that is bound to offer many more solutions in the near future.

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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