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NREL-Developed Renewable Polyurethane Concept Takes Step Forward

March 19, 2021

A startup founded by an emeritus researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has moved closer to commercializing technology he helped develop at the U.S. Department of Energy facility.

The company, Polaris Renewables, is the first business to directly spin off from NREL since 1992.

Philip Pienkos, who retired in April 2020, founded Polaris Renewables. The Colorado company, with offices in Potsdam, New York, is building upon technology he invented along with Tao Dong and Lieve Laurens of NREL. The renewable polyurethane they developed, called non-isocyanate polyurethane (NIPU), can be made from commercially available oils like linseed oil or soybean oil or even the oils from algae or food wastes.

Photo of Philip Pienkos in a lab
Phil Pienkos. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

The number of companies that license technology from NREL is long, but few instances exist of a scientist from the laboratory so directly involved as to start a business around a discovery. Pienkos, however, wants to see it through.

“My grand ambition is to see our renewable polymers in production,” he said.

Polyurethane—a common plastic in applications ranging from sprayable foams to adhesives to synthetic clothing fibers—has become a staple of the 21st century, adding convenience, comfort, and even beauty to numerous aspects of everyday life. The sheer versatility of the material, which is currently made largely from petroleum byproducts, has made polyurethane the go-to plastic for a range of products. Today, more than 16 million tons of polyurethane are produced globally every year. The renewable polyurethane is nontoxic, sustainable, and has a lower carbon footprint, but with similar physical properties to petroleum-based polyurethane.

The NIPU synthesis pathway also has the advantage of fixing carbon dioxide into the finished product. As much as 30% of the weight is from carbon dioxide delivered during the reaction. This is in addition to the carbon dioxide captured by the plant or alga to produce vegetable oil feedstock from photosynthesis.

Pienkos, who joined NREL in 2007, was group manager and strategic project lead at NREL’s National Bioenergy Center until his retirement. He is now an emeritus researcher at the laboratory. Pienkos holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and had previously started two companies.

His original goal after retirement was to provide technical consulting in the areas of renewable fuels and chemicals, but his plans began to change when he recognized the value of this technology. And now, NIPUs are attracting global attention. An international initiative called Fashion for Good, which works toward bringing sustainability into the fashion industry, last year chose his company for its accelerator program because of NIPU’s potential uses as coating for fabrics and outdoor gear and foams for footwear and other applications. The technology also won an R&D 100 Special Recognition Award: Market Disruptor—Products in 2020.

Eric Payne, a senior licensing executive at NREL, said Polaris Renewables has the option to negotiate an exclusive license to use NIPU for textile and athletic apparel. The technology remains available to license in other fields of use, such as for vehicle and building material applications.

NREL has filed two patent applications on the technology.