The high summer months are often labelled as a lull in the business calendar. However, the industrial gases sector is rarely dormant and this month has been no exception with several sector revelations stealing international news inches.

Consequently, this hot topic offers readers an exclusive window into the most important of these latest scientific murmurs precious moments before it transforms into a quake of, well, global magnitude.

Seemingly simple, it is the very recent discovery by the North American based group, Novomer, that carbon dioxide can be converted into food packaging. Briefly summarised, the company has honed a proprietary catalyst that enables waste CO2 to be inserted into an epoxide which forms a polymer especially suited to food packaging and coating.

The new coatings are made of approximately 40% CO2, while the chemical process is cost and resource efficient.The breakthrough has attracted large sums of federal and corporate investment and hopes to provide a non-hazardous replacement to bisphenol A (BPA) in the linings of food and drink. By creating an alternative polymer, Novomer will address a very recent turn among corporations such as Heinz to phase-out BPA within their product packaging.

Peter Shepard, Vice President of Business Development at Novomer, explained, “We believe our polyol technology may offer a replacement for epoxy in can linings. The advantage is our polyols do not contain BPA. The applications include two-piece cans, such as soda, beer and three-piece cans for food.”

The arrival is timely as both the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA) and Heinz Australia have bowed to consumer pressure and committed to phasing out the use of BPA by seeking safe substitutes. Heinz Australia qualified this commitment further in a recent promise to remove BPA from all its baby foods.

The pioneering method is based on catalyst technology discovered at Cornell University by Dr Geoff Coates. Coates discovered a proprietary catalyst which enables carbon dioxide to be inserted into an epoxide to form a polymer.

Thanks to this, the company will use CO2, sourced from ethanol production and supplied by Praxair, putting it to good use to create sustainable polymers and polyols.

Novomer described its niche, “Novomer’s materials and polymers are based on the co-polymerisation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and can be designed as both thermoplastic polymers and polyols for the production of various packaging and coating products. As these polymers contain more than 40% CO2 by weight, Novomer’s technology requires significantly less petroleum than traditional polymers and converts significant amounts of CO2 into valuable materials, thereby preventing it from being emitted into the environment.”

‘But what importance will this yield for the industrial gases sector?’ you might be asking. The answer is timing. Not only is the new material entering the market at a time of change in regulations and advice governing the use of its predecessor, BPA. But, more importantly, it has arrived just as many global powers have committed to investment in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

This wide-spread agenda shift has seen recycling of otherwise harmful CO2 emissions become a new international priority. Consequently, it doesn’t take a Doctor of chemistry to realise the significance and potential behind Novomer’s technology.

Indeed, on 29th July 2010, the US government recognised the scope and awarded Novomer with second phase $18.4m funds from the US Department of Energy; bringing the total federal investment in Novomer to $23m. Jim Mahoney, CEO of Novomer, responded to the award, “These Phase Two awards represent the aggressive and visionary approach that this administration is taking toward addressing climate change, and a validation of the unique impact that Novomer’s innovation brings to bear.”

Mahoney concluded, “We are extremely proud of the team’s efforts and success in Phase One and excited for the next step – both for the program and Novomer’s broader market potential.”

The company is one of six bodies to be selected as part of Phase Two, $106m Recovery Act investment aimed at reducing CO2 emissions and mitigating climate change. Dr Steven Chu, Secretary for the Department of Energy, described the federal investment.

He said, “The Block Grants are a major investment in energy solutions that will strengthen America’s economy and create jobs at a local level.”

Dr Chu added, “It will also promote some of the cheapest, cleanest and most reliable energy technologies we have - energy efficiency and conservation - which can be deployed immediately.”

The objective of this specific federal aid project is to convert CO2 into several polymers for end-use in the manufacturing of bottles, films, laminates, coatings on food and beverage cans, as well as other wood and metal surface applications.

The second phase will take place over 24 months and includes a 20% industry and cost share, in which Novomer and its partners will design, construct and operate materials creation at pilot scale, in preparation for broad commercialisation.

Massachusetts based firm, Novomer, commented, “At the end of the project, in addition to enabling commercial-scale manufacturing capabilities for sustainable materials with several contract manufacturers, it is expected that several products will be customer qualified, requiring commercial scale production of PPC polymers on a global basis.”

Throughout Phase Two, Novomer will be supported by partners which include the chemical firm Albermale, the chemicals division of photographic materials company Eastman Kodak and the Dutch life sciences material company DSM, as well as Praxair.

The new funding is part of a global cohort of initiatives aimed at combating climate change by reducing carbon emissions through capture and sequestration. Elsewhere, groups such as Foster Wheeler and ENDESA have successfully gained government funding. Indeed, this summer has already seen Foster Wheeler, ENDESA and the Spanish Foundation, Fundación Ciudad de la Energía (CIUDEN), sign a grant agreement with the European Commission (EC) for carbon capture and storage technology advancement in Spain.

Under the contract, the group will benefit from €180m of funding via the EC’s European Energy Program for Recovery. Meanwhile other companies, such as Germany’s E.ON AG and swedish Vattenfall AB are seeking out similar lucrative funding.

Dr Coates perhaps summarised best the importance of such scientific innovation. He concluded, “Chemistry has a unique role in helping society address important issues. Whether it is ways to generate and store energy, or to make plastics that not only make our lives better but don’t impact the environment.”