November 12, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Green chemistry's 'race to innovation'

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Entrepreneurs are cashing in on the growing interest in greener materials. Serious Materials, a company which has come up with a more energy-efficient formula for making drywall, earlier this month raised $50 million to ramp up its manufacturing.

On Wednesday, start-up Novomer announced that it raised $6.6 million to commercialize a chemical process that uses carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as a feedstock to make biodegradable plastics.

That flow of money--part of a larger green-tech investment boom--is a far cry from a few years ago when venture capitalists weren't receptive to company pitches based on green materials, said David Rosenberg, the CEO of Hycrete. That company has developed an additive that makes concrete water resistant.

"It's amazing how fast this tidal wave has come. We went from being this quirky concrete company to all of a sudden this cool, chic clean-tech company," said Rosenberg, who successfully raised money last year.

Hycrete's additive has very low toxicity and no volatile organic compounds, which are notorious indoor air pollutants. But Rosenberg said that most of the company's sales are due to the product's performance--being water resistant--rather than for its "green" attributes.

The business case for green chemistry could exclude the issue of being environmentally benign, and still be successful. Chemical processes that reduce waste translate into huge savings, said Berkeley Cue, Jr., who started the green-chemistry initiative at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Cue calculates that the pharmaceutical industry--under constant pressure to invest research and development in blockbuster drugs--could save $10 billion and eliminate 4 billion kilos of waste a year. "Companies that figure out how to do it will be at a competitive advantage," he said.

Meeting a growing number of regulations is also very expensive. The electronics industry, which uses a huge amount of water and fossil fuels in production, is now facing a new wave of controls with the Restriction on Hazardous Substances Directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive.

Green chemistry practices haven't fully taken hold in industry because most companies still focus on complying with regulations after a product's been released, rather than designing environmentally benign and less wasteful products from the start, Cue said.

A change in business practices and more education will both be necessary to get results that appeal to businesses and consumers alike.

"This isn't some kind of noble wish. It's not about being nice to the birds and the bunnies. This is a design protocol," said Anastas.

 

Correction: This article incorrectly stated the product that Serious Materials works with. The company has created a more energy-efficient formula for making drywall.

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