CO2-based plastics on the way to mainstream tech
Image credit: Arnold Paul
Industrial exhaust containing carbon dioxide could be captured in future and used to make plastics, reducing consumption of petroleum.
A pan-European project dubbed EnCO2re exploring the technology was announced on Friday at K-Fair in Düsseldorf. It is headed by Climate-KIC, Europe’s largest public-private partnership addressing climate change, and polymer manufacturer Covestro.
The team has already showcased some early results including polyurethane fibres and flexible plates containing 20 per cent of CO2.
“That allows using 20 per cent less propylene oxide, which is the traditional material used to make polyurethane,” said Ted Grozier, EnCO2re Programme Manager.
Moreover, the technology allows pollutants to be converted to usable and valuable resources. So far, the researchers are using high-purity CO2, a by-product of chemical manufacturing or beer making. In future they would like to be able to capture less concentrated CO2 from steel plants or electricity generation.
“What we are trying to do fundamentally is to close the industrial carbon loop,” Grozier said. “We look at CO2 reuse broadly, but we think that the initial best opportunities from the technological standpoint and from the ecological and economic standpoint are in the polymers business and the chemical intermediates.”
That includes adhesives, foams, elastomers and fibres.
Grozier said the technology is quite ready for commercial use but its main drawback is a relatively high price compared to traditional fossil-based plastic materials.
When asked whether it might be possible to increase the percentage of CO2 in the product beyond the current 20 per cent, he admitted that limitations do exist.
“You can increase the CO2 percentage somewhat but it may affect the material properties,” he said.
But even the current twenty per cent would make a difference. Plastics, conventionally made of petroleum, are used to manufacture everyday objects including furniture, insulation or components for car manufacturing.
“While it's easy to point out the environmental problems of plastics, the reality is that our society depends on these materials in critical sectors such as healthcare, insulation, and in making vehicles that are lighter and use less fuel,” Grozier said.
“But we need to figure out how to make these materials without using fossil fuels. Just like bio-based feedstocks and better recycling, CO2 reuse presents an opportunity to apply closed-loop processes to a large and growing industry.”
Last month, an American company competing in the Carbon X Prize unveiled a sports shoe with a sole made partially of CO2 captured from exhaust fumes of a power plant.