Coates ’89 Making Plastic Out of Thin Air

by Steve Charles

September 27, 2013

Leave it to a Wabash man to find an environmentally and economically sustainable way to make the plastics contained in practically everything we use these days.

That’s the goal of Cornell University Tisch University Professor Geoff Coates ’89 and his start-up, Novomer, and he returned to campus Thursday to tell the Wabash community exactly how it’s done. 

Coates’ offered the details to science majors and the like-minded in a scientific talk Thursday afternoon, but not before delivering the Second Annual Hovey Lecture in Chemistry to the general public. (Watch the “In Pursuit of the Perfect Plastic" here,)

Opening with a brief history of the development and evolution of plastics since 1912, Coates moved quickly to the challenges facing a consumer culture in which plastic has become “indispensable.”

“Whether you know it or not, you’re living in the age of plastics,” Coates said.

But the virtues of plastic are also its vices: It’s lightweight, but it also floats (witness the Texas-sized patch of plastic debris in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre); it’s durable, but takes too long to biodegrade; it saves energy, but consumes energy; it keeps us safe in various applications, but can also be a threat to our health (see BPAs). And 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, a non-renewable and increasingly expensive resource.

Coates pointed out some of the successful efforts to make plastics from sugars derived from corn and bio-mass, but noted that using food to make plastic—or fuel—has its own negative consequences.

“So how do we get rid of the downsides of plastics while keeping the benefits?” Coates asked. “We need to develop synthetic methods that limit energy and raw material consumption, and the plastic must be better than what’s out there now, and cheaper.”

The answer he and his colleagues at Cornell (including Syud Momtaz ’07) and Novomer came up with is a family of what they call “high performance, environmentally responsible polymers:” plastics made “from renewable sources and with decomposition programmed into them so their lifetime matches their use time.”

Among the most exciting of Novomer’s processes uses an epoxide catalyst to convert carbon dioxide into a plastic. At a repurposed chemical plant in Orangeburg, SC, the company is capturing C02 that would normally escape into the atmosphere, introducing the epoxide catalyst, and making polyethylene and polypropylene that can be used in architectural and beverage can coatings, bottles, polyurethane foam, and flexible and clear plastics like those used to make computer keyboard covers. The process earned for Novomer the ICIS Innovation Award for Best Environmental Benefit and won backing from the U.S. Department of Energy and partners Albermarle and Eastman Kodak for larger scale production.

“It’s 44% CO2 by weight, and the cheapest polymer on the planet,” Coates said. Coates and his colleagues have also come up with a process to make a polymer form CO2 and a byproduct of the orange juice industry and have discovered a new process for making acrylic acid, a crucial component in liquid absorbing plastics like those used in diapers.

Coates, who was given an honorary degree by the College at last spring's Commencement ceremonies, was introduced by Professor of Chemistry Scott Feller as "one of the College's most distinguished scientists."

"Any success I've had in chemistry is largely due to the Wabash chemistry department and the faculty in it," Coates told the students gathered for the noon talk. "It was a really amazing educational experience, and you guys chose wisely when you chose to come here."


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