Winners of R&D 100 Awards, whether a high-performance microscope or a new type of plastic, must wait months or even years before the market decides it is a successful product. The editors at R&D like to follow the fortunes of these winners, and we are often pleasantly surprised at the way they can quickly transform entire industries. Companies like Newlight, Dow Chemical and Leica Microsystems are among those whose products have had immediate impact.
A new standard in foam
In 2011, The Dow Chemical Company launched a type of extruded polystyrene foam product. The material, developed to improve fire resistance while also meeting ever more stringent environmental regulations, was made possible through the development of a high molecular weight additive that is not persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic. Called Polymeric Flame Retardant, or PolyFR, this material earned Dow a R&D 100 Award in 2012; and since then, the company has made the technology available to the global extruded polystyrene (XPS) and expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam insulation industry through three manufacturing and marketing licensees. The international licensees, Chemtura (Emerald Innovation 3000), ICL (FR-122P) and Albemarle (GreenCrest), have built commercial production capacity for the new polymeric flame retardant amounting to more than 14,000 MT (megatons) at the end of 2013. Dow expects this level of production to be expanded to more than 25,000 MT by the end of 2014.
On April 22, 2014, Dow Building Solutions, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, announced that it had successfully produced its first Sytrofoam extruded polystyrene (XPS) foam product containing the new PolyFR technology in Europe. The material is branded IMPAXX and has been made for Michigan-based Coastal Automotive, a supplier of energy absorbing materials to the automotive industry. IMPAXX is the first commercial XPS foam product containing PolyFR in Europe, and will be used in automotive applications such as overhead systems, doors and pillar trims to help absorb energy during impact.
Beginning in Japan last year, Dow Building Solutions started the process of converting all of its Styrofoam XPS foam plants in North America, Europe and the Middle East to the new Polymeric Fire Retardant technology.
Fluorescence microscope surpasses diffraction limit
According to Prof. Stefan W. Hell, director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, Germany, Leica Microsystems was the first company to successfully implement technology that surpasses the diffraction limit in light microscopy. Hell, widely considered the father of super-resolution technology was instrumental in developing the technology that led to the 2012 R&D 100 Award-winning SR GSD microscope. SR GSD stands for super-resolution ground state depletion, and it describes the widefield super-resolution technology that forms the basis for one of Leica’s two super-resolution product lines. The other is the stimulated emission depletion (STED) confocal microscopes.
The technology is not new—the company recently celebrated 10 years of super-resolution instrumentation with the launch of two new systems in April 2014, the Leica SR GSD 3D and the Leica TCS SP8 STED 3X—but only recently has super-resolution taken hold as an increasingly indispensable technique for studying biological systems at high resolution.
Super-resolution technology enables researchers to image structures in a range down to the molecular level. In the case of the fluorescence SR GSD instrument, almost all of the fluorescent molecules in a specimen are switched off for most of the time. Controlled laser light turns them into a dark state. Individual molecules spontaneously return to the fluorescent state while nearby molecules remain dark. This allows the signals of individual molecules to be obtained sequentially and spatially with a sensitive, fast camera system.
The “super-resolution image” created from this localized imagery resolves cell components, improving resolution beyond what confocal microscopy can achieve.
In 2004, Leica launched its first commercial super-resolution microscope, Leica TCS 4PI, and during the last ten years the company introduced confocal STED technology, followed by GSDIM/dSTORM (Ground State Depletion followed by Individual Molecule return/direct Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy). Hell was awarded the Deutscher Zukunftspreis (German Future Prize) in 2006 for the invention of STED nanoscopy.
In April, Newlight Technologies announced that it had raised $9.2 million to expand AirCarbon commercialization. This brings the company’s total capital raise to $18.8 million.
What it AirCarbon exactly? A PHA-based thermoplastic, the material is made by pulling carbon out of greenhouse gas to form a long chain thermoplastic molecule that can match the performance of oil-based plastics. This is done using microorganism-based biocatalyst developed by Newlight, which generates a polymer conversion yield that is more than nine times higher than previous methane-to-PHA conversion technologies.
According to Newlight, this dramatic increase in yield fundamentally shifts the cost structure of greenhouse gas to plastic conversion. The company says that the biocatalytic process allows them to out-compete oil-based plastics, such as polypropylene and polyethylene, on price.
The R&D 100 Awards judges agreed with their assessment, recognizing them with an Award in 2013. The Irvine, Calif.-based company was founded 10 years ago to develop a competitive gas-to-plastic technology. Due to the high heat-trapping potential of methane compared to carbon dioxide, the company's primary focus has been on sequestering methane-based greenhouse gases, which have over 20 times the heat-trapping impact of carbon dioxide.
Newlight’s manufacturing process begins with a point-source stream of air containing greenhouse gas that is collected and fed into a proprietary gas polymerization reactor. Using multiple gas mass transfer technology, air and greenhouse gas is then converted into aqueous form. Dissolved gas is then contacted with an engineered biocatalyst that polymerizes hydrogen, oxygen and carbon into a long-chain thermoplastic polymer at high yield. The resin is converted to plastic pellets, which are as strong as oil-based plastics and more cost effective.
In 2013, after ten years of continuous pilot and demonstration scale operations, Newlight scaled up the production process to commercial scale at a four-story, multi-million pound per year production facility in California, converting captured methane from an anaerobic digester into carbon-negative AirCarbon thermoplastic. Last year, Newlight also unveiled the world's first carbon-negative product made using AirCarbon, launching the AirCarbon chair at the Greenbuild International Conference in Philadelphia.
Newlight is now using the methane-to-PHA bioconversion technology to convert methane (such as biogas) from farms, water treatment plants, and municipal landfills. The company is also working with Fortune 500 partners to launch carbon-negative AirCarbon products across a range of market segments, including in automotive, electronics, construction and apparel. A 50 million-pound-per-year production facility is also in the works.