Case studies

Econic Technologies - breathing new life into polymer production

Plastics and polymers are ubiquitous in daily life; no matter what you do or where you live, in a normal day you will touch, wear, see, sit on or even wash with products that use plastics and polymers in their construction. There is, however, another side to such a versatile material: around 8% of extracted oil and gas goes into plastic production, with fossil fuels representing 99% of plastics’ feedstock. Plastic production is closely associated with increasing level of atmospheric CO2 and the ensuing environmental impact.

In 2008, a team led by Professor Charlotte Williams (Department of Chemistry) was able to produce chemical catalysts that enabled the integration of carbon dioxide in the production of polymers and plastics. This in itself was nothing new—several groups were addressing the same challenge, with other disciplines tackling the rise in greenhouse gases using their own expertise. What made Prof Williams’ catalysts different was their ease of use: previous attempts had required very specific circumstances, such as high pressure, whereas these newly developed ones worked without any special procedures.

Recognising their breakthrough, the Williams group filed for a patent with Imperial Innovations and eventually formed Econic Technologies in 2012.

“One reason why I supported the formation of Econic was that I wanted to remain involved in the science; I wanted to keep thinking about it”, explains Prof Williams, “Another important factor was that we had the right partners in place.”

While exploring the commercial potential of the technology, Imperial Innovations had contacted David Morgan, an expert from the polymer industry and now Chairman of the Board at Econic. His insight was “invaluable in developing a clear picture of what Econic would be and how it could achieve its goals.”

Partnerships

Another key partnership has been with Norner Verdandi, a Norwegian polymer and plastics consultancy operating worldwide. Norner, along with Touchstone Innovations (the technology investor and parent company of Imperial Innovations) and Jetstream Capital, was a founding investor in the company. The expertise brought in by Norner has helped accelerate the company’s development.

“The technology we’re developing at Econic has the advantage of bringing both environmental and financial benefits, the latter being key to promote industry adoption. Combine that with low technical and legislative barriers and you have a very strong business case”, says Prof Williams, “When specialist investors see this and support your work, it’s a great endorsement.”

Incubation

Econic has been based at the Imperial Incubator, renting both office space and laboratory facilities. Throughout this time, Prof Williams remained Econic’s Chief Scientific Office (CSO) while continuing her academic work at the College, before taking a new role with the University of Oxford. The company graduated in January 2017, moving to larger facilities in the Stockport area in order to support its growth and development.

“There’s quite an overlap in the skills required for both roles: you need to think carefully about your subject, consider your end goals, and actively work with your team to reach them. Nevertheless, they are two separate roles and having separate spaces has been very useful. With Econic based within the South Kensington Campus, it was easy for me to come to the Incubator and do some work there before returning to the lab.”

Econic continues to develop and adapt its catalysts for industrial applications, working in a variety of projects and consortia. This includes a collaborative pilot study with the UK Government’s Ferrybridge Power Station’s carbon capture demonstrator plant using Econic catalysts in industrial conditions. The company’s products now have improved activity, selectivity, and robustness.

Potential for impact

The potential scope of Econic’s impact could be very extensive. Widespread adoption of the technology could both reduce the rate at which we consume fossil fuels and the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

By replacing up to 40% of petrochemical feedstock with carbon dioxide, Econic estimates that for every tonne of CO2 used, the release of another 2 tonnes is prevented – a clear environmental benefit.

“Founding Econic has given me new perspectives and ways to approach my work, both commercial and academic. People in Industry will look at your work differently and understanding that point-of-view and those different priorities has been enlightening”, says Prof Williams, “Econic has also allowed me to work with a large and varied team. The team assembled at Econic includes some of the best scientists I have met, all with their own expertise, whether it be catalyst development, process engineering, or synthetic chemistry. To work with them and see their excitement at contributing to Econic’s future has been a great source of pride.”

Societal impact: Econic’s technology could reduce reliance on fossil fuels, reduce emissions of CO2, and provide a means to capture and store CO2 emissions; a ‘triple lock’ of environmental protection and improvement.