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Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge: 2012 Academic Award (Coates)

Professor Geoffrey W. Coates of Cornell University


Synthesizing Biodegradable Polymers from Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide


Innovation and Benefits: Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide derived from biomass or other carbon sources are ideal feedstocks for chemicals, but there had been no efficient way to make them into valuable polymers. Professor Coates developed a family of catalysts that convert carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into polymers. Novomer, Inc. is using his discoveries to develop a range of innovative, high-performance products, including can and coil coatings, adhesives, foams, and plastics.

Summary of Technology: Plastics improve our lives in countless ways, but they also pose a serious threat to our environment. Virtually all plastics are derived from scarce fossil fuels that pose their own danger, including oil well leaks and global warming induced by carbon dioxide (CO2). Of the 150 million tons of plastics made each year worldwide, only a small fraction is recycled. The rest end up in landfills or worse as litter.

CO2 and carbon monoxide (CO) are ideal feedstocks for polymer synthesis. They can be derived from many low-cost sources including biorenewable agricultural waste, abundant coal, or even from industrial waste gas. The challenge with using them, however, lies in converting them into useful products efficiently. Professor Geoffrey Coates has developed innovative processes to synthesize plastics from inexpensive, biorenewable substances including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, plant oils, and lactic acid.

Professor Coates has developed a new family of catalysts over the last decade that can effectively and economically turn CO2 and CO into valuable polymers. These catalysts have high turnover frequencies, turnover numbers, and selectivities. As a result, only a small amount of catalyst is required leading to cost-effective commercial production for the first time. These catalysts can also be used in highly efficient continuous flow processes.

Professor Coates has invented active and selective catalysts to copolymerize CO2 and epoxides into high-performance polycarbonates. Professor Coates also invented a class of catalysts that can insert one or two molecules of CO into an epoxide ring to produce β-lactones and succinic anhydrides. Both of these products have many uses in synthesizing pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals, and plastics. Polymers made from CO2 and CO contain ester and carbonate linkages. These polymers exhibit unique performance in current commodity plastic applications and in some cases are ultimately biodegradable.

Professor Coates's work forms the scientific foundation of Novomer Inc., a start-up company backed by venture capital. In 2010, Novomer and DSM announced an agreement to develop coatings using the new polycarbonates made with Coates’s catalysts. Prototype high-performance industrial coil coatings are moving from development toward commercialization. There is potential to develop a coating system to replace the bisphenol A (BPA) epoxy coatings that line most food and drink cans worldwide. This discovery is important, as BPA is a suspected endocrine disrupter that can migrate out of coatings over time. The novel polymer is currently sold to companies that manufacture electronics because the thermally degradable nature of the polymer allows more efficient production of electronic components. The new polycarbonate coating is expected to require 50 percent less petroleum to produce and will sequester up to 50 weight percent CO2. Lifecycle analysis shows that at full market penetration, Novomer’s materials have the potential to sequester and avoid approximately 180 million metric tons of annual CO2 emissions.

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