FocusUS Novomer sees CO2-based polyol as potential game-changer

28 February 2013 16:40  [Source: ICIS news]

US Novomer sees CO2-based polyol as potential game-changerBy Jeremy Pafford

HOUSTON (ICIS)--When it comes to making polyols, Jason Anderson thinks a product his company recently made has the makings of becoming the third major class of polyols. That may not be a lot of hot air, but it is a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Anderson is the director of CO2 strategy and business development at Novomer, a materials company that specialises in producing low-cost, high-performance sustainable polymers and chemicals.  

Novomer recently teamed with Albemarle at its Orangeburg, South Carolina, plant to produce the world’s first large-scale manufacturing run of polypropylene carbonate (PPC) polyol, producing more than 7 tons (6 tonnes) of finished product.

Novomer modified Albermarle’s existing equipment for the PPC polyol production run.

“All we had to do was add some pipes, pumps and instrumentation,” Anderson said.

The result of the run was a 1,000 molecular weight PPC diol to be used to accelerate product qualification and adoption in conventional polyurethane applications such as flexible and rigid foams, adhesives and sealants, coatings and elastomers.

"We are pleased with the results of this first run and thank the DOE [Department of Energy] for their support,” said Ron Valente, Novomer’s vice president of research. “This campaign clearly demonstrates the robustness of our catalyst and manufacturing process, and we are confident in the ability to move to a larger scale as demand warrants."

The vast majority of polyols used today are petroleum-based. But the feedstock of choice for Novomer is CO2 – waste CO2 at that. 

Novomer polyols are produced via the co-polymerisation of CO2 and epoxides, and the resulting polycarbonate products contain more than 40% CO2 by weight. And the use of waste CO2 as a raw material yields a product with a low carbon footprint.

Waste CO2 is significantly lower in cost than conventional petroleum-based raw materials, so people such as Anderson believe polyol manufacturing costs will be favourable compared with conventional polyols when Novomer’s process is used at full commercial scale.

Efficiently turning CO2 into PPC is possible thanks to proprietary cobalt-based catalyst based on technology licensed from Cornell University that facilitates the reaction of petroleum compounds with CO2.

And the PPC that Novomer creates can be tuned to the needs of specific applications, as the polyol backbone, structure, molecular weight and functionality can all be tailored independently, Anderson said.

Novomer's PPC polyol has a polycarbonate backbone that increases the strength and durability of polyurethane products, the company said. Incorporating these new polyols into existing formulations yields foams with higher tensile strength, tear strength and load bearing capacity; adhesives and coatings with improved adhesion, cohesive strength and weatherabilty; and elastomers with greater tensile and flexural strength.

In Anderson’s mind, Novomer’s polyol process has many selling points to producers. The low cost of the CO2 feedstock makes the process very competitive with current production methods, he said, not to mention that the process produces vital polymers from a waste greenhouse gas. And it is not like changing an existing company’s facility over to the Novomer polyol process would drastically alter a company’s bottom line, he said.

“From a capital perspective and an operational costs perspective, our process looks essentially the same as conventional polyether polyol production,” Anderson said.

Novomer officials said the company is working closely with several major companies in various segments of the polyurethanes industry and that the recently produced PPC material will enable commercial scale testing of Novomer polyol.

Anderson sees great potential in CO2-based polyols becoming a major leg of the polyol marketplace in the future.

“Currently, roughly two-thirds of the polyol market is polyether and one-third polyester,” Anderson said. “We absolutely think this new polycarbonate polyol can be the third major leg of polyol chemistry.”

By: Jeremy Pafford
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