Biomimicry has been venturing into some pretty strange places these days, from "breathable" mattresses inspired by honeycombs to a miniature spy drone that resembles a hummingbird, but this kind of direct inspiration for design is only one aspect of the field. Last week's "Biomimicry in the Big City" event in New York drew attention to the sometimes indirect but nevertheless profound impact that biomimicry can have on companies involved in clean energy and other green technologies. With that in mind TriplePundit caught up with Scott Allen, co-founder and vice president of Catalyst Development for the company Novomer, to talk about their signature product: plastics.
Carbon Dioxide and Greener Plastics
Novomer's plastics are made with conventional petroleum feedstock, but they only use about half the amount that typical plastic manufacturing requires. The other half is carbon dioxide. The use of a gas to make a solid may seem counter-intuitive, but carbon dioxide shares one fundamental characteristic with petroleum: carbon. Novomer's process extracts carbon molecules from carbon dioxide, which can be harvested from industrial processes rather than, say, from tar sands or deep-ocean wells. Currently Novomer's preferred sources are industrial fermentation processes where the waste gas is fairly pure, such as ammonia production or ethanol refining (but not, at least for now, beer brewing - though in a related field, the New Zealand company Lanza Tech is focused on creating fuel from steel-making waste gas).
Greener Plastics and Biomimicry
If you're wondering what all this has to do with biomimicry, Scott Allen has an answer for you. In Allen's view, biomimicry is not only a direct influencer of design or process, but a glimpse into the possibilities of human endeavor. "Nature has had a lot longer to optimize its processes than we will ever have, but it's inspiring," says Allen. "You can look around and see that nature uses billions of tons of carbon dioxide every year to make useful materials like cellulose." This insight is a useful counterpoint to the news that greenhouse gas emissions are still on the upswing. As Allen puts it, an "incredible amount of biomass" is made every year from carbon dioxide, which gives cause for optimism that the 7 billion people on this planet may some day be capable of converting carbon dioxide to useful products on a similarly massive scale.
The Promise of Waste Gas-to-Plastic
If this sounds overly optimistic, consider where the waste gas-to-plastic industry was just a generation ago: essentially, nowhere. Serious efforts to create plastics from carbon dioxide only date back to the 1970's, and the early attempts were far from successful. Novomer was only founded in 2004 and it has already c0me up with a far more efficient process that yields a high-performing plastic, which recently gained it a chemistry industry award for Innovation with Best Environmental Benefit. The company is also working with Eastman Kodak and the chemical company Ablemarle on the second phase of a $106 million Recovery Act project to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by developing high-volume processes for converting the gas to bottles and other packaging, as well as coatings for beverage cans and other surfaces. According to Allen, for now Novomer is staying with a process that incorporates petroleum products, though in the future it may be able to complete the green circle by substituting biobased feedstocks.
For more information about Biomimicry in the Big City, visit greentechmedia.com.
Image Credit: Green leaf by Kevin Krejci on flickr.com.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.