A Deer Park Drive-based company is developing a new way of making plastics that could be cheaper and less polluting than ever before.

Chemist John Sofranko, founder and CEO of Ecocatalytic, says his catalytic method of making ethylene and propylene — chemicals used to make plastics — could cut the carbon dioxide pollutants that spew from about a dozen plants throughout the country, and eliminate smog-producing nitrous oxide completely.

Ethylene and propylene are polymers that are an intermediate step between crude oil and finished plastic. They are made the same basic way they have been since plastics entered mass production before World War II, in what is called steam cracking, or pyrolysis. A substance called naphtha, a derivative of crude oil, is run through a coiled pipe that is heated to about 1,500 degrees. The oil then breaks down into refinable components, allowing the propylene and ethylene to be separated out. The downside of the process is that it needs a massive amount of heat, typically created by burning natural gas.

At one time, oil was refined into gasoline this way too. But advances in chemistry in the 1940s allowed the process to be completed in “catalytic crackers” that use chemicals, rather than heat, to break down the oil. Catalytic crackers are now used throughout the industry.

A catalyst is a substance that accelerates a chemical reaction. Sofranko hopes that by using his own catalyst, he can do to the plastics industry what catalysts have already done to oil refining. In July, Ecocatalytic received a three-year, $3.8 million contract from the government agency, the Advanced Research Project Agency — Energy to develop the technology.

So, what exactly is inside the catalyst that Sofranko is working on. He won’t say — it’s a trade secret — but, during an interview, he shook a bottle of One-a-Day multivitamins next to the phone. “The components of the catalyst is in these bottles,” he says. “That says a couple of things about it — it’s relatively safe as a starting point, and they’re relatively inexpensive. There are not metals in the platinum group.” (Many catalysts, such as those found in automobile catalytic converters, use platinum metals that drive up the price considerably.)

Sofranko says he has been performing small-scale tests of his catalyst for about a year. “We can get yields that look very good. Much better than you can get from conventional pyrolysis reactors,” he says. Sofranko says energy from the catalytic reaction could be used to power the plant, the same way that catalytic crackers in the oil industry work.

The plastic industry has a big financial incentive to do away with steam cracking. Sofranko says the biggest problem is the nitrous oxide gas that pyrolysis plants produce. State regulators heavily penalize companies that produce excess amounts of nitrous oxide by making them buy emissions credits if a facility spews more than a certain amount of it per year, usually around 25 tons. (Nitrous oxide is a primary component of smog, and can cause serious health problems for people who breathe it in high concentrations.) Each extra ton after 25 costs an amount that varies by state. (About $9,800 in California) and some plants produce 150 to 200 tons per year. Sofranko figures companies could stand to save millions by switching to catalytic production, and it would be even more attractive if the process was cheaper than pyrolysis.

Sofranko grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, where his father worked in the steel industry as a mechanical engineer. He has a bachelor’s in chemistry from the University of Delaware, and a doctorate from the University of Rochester. He spent most of his career working for Arco Chemical, and then spent eight years as the director of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, a professional society with 40,000 members.

In 2011 he decided to go back to his roots as a chemist, in a lab solving problems rather than at a desk hiring and firing. He founded a company called Bio2Electric, based at the Sarnoff Center, where he could use skills he had gained on his first job with Arco. There he had spent years trying to find an efficient way to convert natural gas into liquid gasoline.

Bio2Electric got a grant from the Department of Energy to develop small, mobile gas liquefaction units that could be used on remote oil fields or platforms to capture the natural gas that is burned or wasted during the process of oil drilling. “We’re still working on that,” Sofranko says. “But sometimes when you’re working on one thing, you see something interesting in a slightly different direction. We discovered this reaction that could make ethylene, and the catalyst system is fairly similar.”

The company took a new direction along with the research. Sofranko announced the new grant in August, and shortly thereafter re-named the company EcoCatalytic to better reflect its new focus. Before, he was working alone, but now he has hired a staff of eight. He also moved his lab from Sarnoff Center to Deer Park Drive, a complex just off Route 1 that is home to about 65 startup companies.

At Deer Park Drive, the tenancy is in constant rotation as companies start up, work on a grant or a contract, then either fail and leave, or expand and move to a larger space. The architecture itself is also constantly in flux, since landlord and architect Harold Kent designed the buildings to have movable walls to reconfigure lab space at the whims of the ever-changing tenants. “The paint never dries,” Sofranko says.

“It’s a really nice environment,” Sofranko says. With so many scientific companies in one place, it’s possible to pop over to a neighbor and borrow a gram of a needed chemical. “People have been really welcoming,” he says. “It’s really cool.”

EcoCatalytic Tech, 1 Deer Park Drive, Suite L-3, Monmouth Junction 08852; 609-734-2183; fax, John A. Sofranko, CEO.

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