The project using CO2 to make plastics

For those involved in software, ‘hackathons’ have become a popular and effective way of quickly coming up with solutions to problems. The origins of hackathons started with students and enthusiasts, but since the mid-2000s companies have been interesting in adopting the philosophy as a way of rapidly developing innovation, with advocates including Skype and Adobe.

The hardware world has also caught on to the idea, which has been applied for the first time in the chemistry and materials industry under the auspicious task of using CO2 as a feedstock to make various types of plastics.

Ted Grozier, flagship programme manager on the EnCO2re initiative, explains the thinking. He says: “The idea of a hackathon is you basically lock people in a room, you give them pizza and energy drinks, and they solve problems quickly.”

The EnCO2re hackathon gave participants from academia and industry two weeks to look at the commercialisation of CO2 reuse, which exists and works in the laboratory, but has had limited success industrially. The program was set-up by Climate-KIC, a public-private innovation partnership that aims to use innovation to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change.

Dr Grozier continued: “A lot of great chemistry dies because people don’t have access, for example, to a fume hood to do experiments. It is simple stuff.

“The idea of the hackathon was to take this platform chemistry and produce real material samples at the end of it.”

The platform chemistry in question is Covestro’s CO2 containing polyol, a fundamental building block in the production of plastic materials. The innovation is that catalyst and process technology has been developed to insert CO2 molecules in to the polymer chain. The Polyol is 80% petroleum and 20% CO2 based.

The development of these CO2 containing ‘building block’ materials has been an ongoing Covestro development programme for more than a decade. It’s part of its Dream Production facility, originally called Dream Reaction, to see if CO2 could be used to react and be used to produced plastic.

The company has already had success and produces Cardyon, a CO2 containing synthesised polyurethane foam. The original motivation was to guard against the supply and price volatility of the primary plastic feedstock, petroleum, used exclusively to make the world’s 300 million tonnes of plastic a year.

“The critical question is, ‘how can we make these plastics in a way that doesn’t require continued extraction of fossil resources?’” says Dr Grozier. “That is the long term vision and CO2 is one component of making that vision possible.

“There are, of course, some people that equate everything plastic or chemistry as poison and say we need to go to glass and metal. The reality is, critical sectors like healthcare and transportation can’t live without these materials. Saying you don’t like plastic is fine until you get sick.”

The burgeon of CO2

While manmade CO2 emissions have become public enemy number one, by most accounts levels continue to increase.

EnCO2re aims to change this by giving CO2 real-value. While the Emissions Trading Scheme aimed to artificially do something similar, with dubious results, EnCO2re wants to capture CO2 on a mass scale and use it as a feedstock to make methanol, syngas, fuels and plastics.

“Once you have syngas you can make essentially everything,” says Dr Grozier. “All the plastics that we know and use today can all come from that, as can various fuels such as synthetic diesel. That is why the chemical intermediates are so important.”

If CO2 can be used to make plastics and fuels in a major way, then the controversial polluting gas will become increasingly valuable. It moves on from the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which as a concept has attracted a great deal of criticism and become unpopular as a future ‘green’ technology, both on the content and here in the UK. Rather than pump carbon emissions in to empty underground caverns that once held hydrocarbons, they can be utilised.

“There are some parallels to CCS with carbon capture and utilisation (CCU),” says Dr Grozier. “But, we call it CO2 reuse to avoid confusion between the two and in many places CCS has a pretty negative reputation.

“CO2 reuse as a term though is not very well known. We people’s mind set, so they think of CO2 not just as a pollutant that causes global warming, but actually as a valuable raw material that can be used to create new products.”

The concept has had some commercial success to date, notably Covestro’s Cardyon foam used mainly to make mattresses and upholstered furniture. It’s Dream Production facility produces some 5000 tonnes of the precursor Polyol a year, which is mixed with isocyanate to make the foam. The CO2 is captured from a neighbouring facility, thought to be producing ammonia.

Equally, large emitters of CO2 such as cement plants, coal fired power stations, and steel works are prime candidates for partnering with CO2 containing raw material production facilities.

The reality is, however, although there are some windows to commercial success today, the technology is still some years off wide spread adoption. But Climate Kic hope Europe can lead developments and is looking to partner with CO2 emitters, material producers and engineers wanting to develop and commercial CO2 containing materials and processes.

“It could be the feedstock of the future,” concludes Dr Grozier. “CO2 reuse holds promise as a way of ensuring feedstock diversification and the sustainable production of these materials.

“The hackathon was a great way to look at the fundamental platform chemistry we have and quickly develop other materials from it. The results were excellent and included adhesives, foams, elastomers and fibres.”

Justin Cunningham

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