As anthropogenic global warming becomes an increasingly critical issue to address, some researchers have turned from finding ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to finding ways to remove carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere. Many believe that this process, known as sequestration, will be an essential tool in the fight against global warming.
Despite the promise that some researchers see in sequestration, it faces many challenges. Although the technical problems to sequestration can be solved by science, researchers have been unable to develop a sequestration method that can be used to produce a profit. That’s because most methods are costly and do not produce anything of value.
That’s where the plastics industry comes in, according to researchers developing innovative new ways to convert carbon dioxide into plastics products. Here, we’ll look at some exciting research developments along those lines.
Copper as a Catalyst
One of the main technical challenges of using CO2 to produce plastic precursors such as ethylene is that CO2 is relatively inert chemically. That means that a lot of energy is needed to make it react with anything else. That’s where catalysts – substances that can increase the rate or effectiveness of a reaction – come in.
In January 2018, researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada announced that they had found a way to improve the effectiveness of converting CO2 into ethylene. The key discovery? A form of copper that, under the right conditions, maximizes ethylene production.
The process still requires energy – and if that energy doesn’t come from a carbon-neutral source, sequestration of CO2 in plastics is not effective.
Plastic from Plants
At Stanford University in California, researchers are taking a different tack. Matthew Kanan, an associate professor of chemistry, and his team have been working on a way to combine agricultural waste products (such as inedible plant parts) with CO2 to produce polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), which many believe is a viable alternative to the popular, but carbon-intensive, PET. This would allow producers to take advantage of waste products, which are cheaply available, to make low-carbon plastics. If the method proves economically viable, plastic producers, agricultural producers, consumers, and the earth all stand to benefit.
The two research projects described above represent only a tiny fraction of the ongoing work in this exciting field. Additional developments include research on free-radical-based chemical reactions in Japan, the discovery of a new catalyst at University of Nebraska, and the use of carbon dioxide and geothermal energy from natural geothermal resources in Iceland to produce methanol, among countless others. We’ll be sure to update you on exciting new developments in the field on this blog.