Efforts to exploit waste carbon dioxide as a raw material to manufacture chemical products are advancing, driven by economics and the quest for sustainability. Companies such as Novomer, Oakbio and Liquid Light in North America, plus the Solar-Jet project in Europe are at various stages of developing technology to use the greenhouse gas. Such work is prompting interest and investment from major chemical companies including Saudi Aramco, DSM, BP and Shell.
For example, on May 21, Novomer, Waltham, Mass., announced the commercial introduction of its Converge polypropylene carbonate polyols for use in polyurethane formulations targeted at coatings, adhesive, sealant, elastomers (CASE) products, as well as rigid and flexible foams.
The move is an important step for the company, which has developed two technology platforms — one for carbon dioxide and the other for carbon monoxide — based on proprietary catalysts to transform propylene oxide or ethylene oxide into economically competitive, high-performance industrial products.
Converge polyols are designed to replace conventional petroleum-based polyether, polyester and polycarbonate polyols. The products, which are based on the co-polymerization of carbon dioxide and epoxides, contain more than 40% by weight carbon dioxide (Figure 1). Novomer says the use of waste carbon dioxide as a significant raw material gives the product an extremely low carbon footprint. In addition, because waste carbon dioxide is markedly lower in cost than conventional petroleum-based raw materials, production at full commercial scale is said to offer favorable economics compared to those of making conventional polyols.
The initial product offerings — 1,000- and 2,000-molecular-weight grades — are manufactured at a multi-thousand-ton commercial-scale toll facility in Houston. They currently are being tested by users and at the company’s internal development center at Waltham.
“I can’t name names yet but in June our first customer started buying one of our products in commercial quantities,” says Peter H. Shepard, Novomer’s chief business officer. “It’s one thing to have the technology but a whole other thing to have someone else discover the value in a product and pay for it. That’s a huge step forward. Once one customer starts using the product and getting good performance, it will help to springboard interest,” he adds.
Interestingly, much of the interest in the technology is from companies that currently aren’t in the CASE market but want to gain a foothold in it.
The success of Novomer’s technology has attracted investment from Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures (SAEV), the corporate venturing subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
SAEV’s investment will fund ongoing development of the technology platforms as well as construction of a market-development plant to manufacture carbon-dioxide–based polyols, and the enhancement of Novomer’s sales and marketing organization.
Shepard will not reveal the scale of SAEV’s investment but does admit that it gives the company a good solid three years of operations. “Aramco are definitely into being a strategic partner, especially in the area of manufacturing. So if we meet certain targets, they would be very interested in housing a commercial plant.” DSM also is involved but in a traditional venture capitalist role, he notes.
Novomer currently is developing a continuous production process at the Texas plant — an effort that will take about three years, he says — and working to make its catalysts less costly to use and more productive.
Meanwhile Oakbio, Sunnyvale, Calif., and Liquid Light, Monmouth Junction, N.J., are among 24 groups that each will receive C$500,000 ($454,000) from the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp. (CCEMC), Sherwood Park, Alberta, as part of its C$35-million (U.S.$31.8-million) international competition for technology to markedly cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by creating new carbon-based products and markets. (For more details, see: “Carbon Competition Names First Round Winners").
Oakbio has created a technology that uses chemoautotrophic microbes to produce a number of chemicals from industrial waste, carbon dioxide and energy. Currently the company’s main products are polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) polymers and n-butanol.
“Because we run a co-located flue-gas test laboratory at Lehigh Southwest Cement (Figure 2), Tehachapi, Calif., we were able to develop flue-gas-resistant strains using actual unadulterated flue gas and achieve up to 70% dry-weight yield of PHAs,” says Brian Sefton, Oakbio’s president and chief scientist.
The Lehigh project is significant because cement production currently accounts for 5–8% of global carbon dioxide release, according to Sefton. Lehigh itself produces 1 million t/y of the greenhouse gas.