Carbon dioxide economy

German Nova-institute released an interesting press release, August 15: ‘The next revolution: CO2 plus renewable energy can serve as a feedstock for fuels, chemicals and plastics’. According to Nova’s CO2 expert Dr. Fabrizio Sibilla, CO2 will produce many environmental gains, when used in chemical industry. Countries like Australia, China and the US have embarked upon this route. CO2 reduction, using hydrogen, produces methanol, to be used as a chemical feedstock or an energy carrier.

Developments might have started already. Bayer is said to produce polyurethanes from CO2, and DSM is said to produce polycarbonates from it. Novomer, a US company in which DSM is involved, has developed a catalyst for polypropylene carbonate from CO2 and propylene oxide, and for polyethylene carbonate from CO2 and ethylene oxide. These are flexible plastics, to be used in many applications, which can be produced at a 20 to 50% lower cost because feedstock CO2 is a waste product, and the oxide feedstock and the in-house developed catalyst (without expensive metals) are cheap. (Inter alia, this Novomer catalyst is suitable for propiolacton production from CO and ethylene oxide, too; propiolacton itself can produce acrylic acid and acrylic esters, and succinic acid anhydride. The latter product can produce 1-4 butanediol and tehrahydrofuran. Billion dollar markets lie ahead in diapers, paints and coatings, high performance polymers, and textiles.)

CO2 technology available
According to Rob Duchateau of Eindhoven Technical University and Sabic, almost all big chemical corporations have taken up interest in the CO2 pathway to chemical feedstock and products. Carbon dioxide is a large scale feedstock for urea production (fertilizer) already, and many companies employ catalytic pathways to produce polycarbonates. The technology for production of the major chemical building blocks from CO2 is available, but this needs hydrogen. Availability of cheap hydrogen is the actual bottle neck. Oil industry produces hydrogen by reforming; but it needs the product for its petrochemical base products itself. And it is not green to produce hydrogen from oil. Other initiatives like catalytic water decomposition still are in their infancy and are not commercially available yet. But chemical pathways to CO2 upgrading – however sustainable they may be – will not contribute appreciably to greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Produce almost anything anywhere
According to Nova, catalytic water decomposition would facilitate use of atmospheric CO2 as a chemical and energetic feedstock by 2030, even though the required hydrogen production would be energy intensive. That is the bottle neck. If that could be solved, chemical industry could produce almost anything anywhere. For although water decomposition into hydrogen and oxygen is expensive when using solar or wind energy, the process could be performed much more efficiently through artificial photosynthesis. This process could be much more efficient than present-day agriculture, or any natural or chemical process (see our article on the Leopoldina German National Science Academy report, elsewhere on this site).

Theoretically, these ideas would seem to be interesting. Although, theoretically? These solutions might be closer at hand than we imagine. Nova dedicates a two-day conference on them: ‘Conference on carbon dioxide as a feedstock for chemistry and polymers’, October 10 and 11, 2012, in the Haus der Technik, Essen, Germany. We will be there as well, curious for the times after 2030, when developments are said to become almost autonomous.

Dominik Vogt:
Rob Duchateau:

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