Price and market trends: US Novomer sees CO2-based polyol as potential game-changer

15 March 2013 09:21  [Source: ICB]

Low cost of feedstock makes process competitive with current production methods, company claims

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.

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 Novomer's feedstock of choice is waste CO2.

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 raw materials, so Anderson believes polyol manufacturing costs will be favourable compared with conventional polyols.

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

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 higher tensile strength, tear strength and load bearing capacity.

Anderson says Novomer's polyol process has many selling points. The low cost of the CO2 feedstock makes the process very competitive, he said, while the process also produces vital polymers from a waste greenhouse gas. And changing an existing company's facility over to the Novomer polyol process would not drastically alter a company's bottom line, he added.

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

Novomer is working closely with several major companies and officials said the recently produced PPC material will enable commercial-scale testing. "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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