Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

What If The Global CO2 Problem Could Be Solved By Plastics?

The headline above most likely will start many people in the plastics industry chuckling at the irony, while the irony simultaneously twists many anti-plastics activists into an uncomfortable, possibly painful, state of confusion. CO2 already is being used as raw material for producing chemicals such as methanol, salicylic acid, and urea. Could it also be used to make plastics?

Not only is the answer yes, it is happening already. A recent posting by Karen Laird on the Green Matter Blog of PlasticsToday.com is a reminder that research on using waste CO2 as a feedstock for making plastics has been underway in earnest for about five years, and more important, progress has been and is being made.CO2 molecule illustration

Progress is substantial and already is at the point that industrial production of a CO2-based polyol, one of the two reactive components of polyurethane (PUR), is scheduled to begin in 2015. Substantial may be an understatement: The initial objective of making low-reactivity CO2 react at all initially was described as the “Dream Reaction.” The sheer energy needed to make the CO2 react was immense.

Five years ago, Bayer MaterialScience and RWTH Aachen University cooperatively formed the CAT Catalytic Center with the university in Aachen, Germany, and one of its principal research programs has been carbon dioxide as an alternative building block for plastics. Laird reported that Bayer began the Dream Reaction project in 2009 to develop catalysis technology to free carbon from CO2 for use in making polyols.

A catalyst was successfully developed that worked in the lab, and the

Dream Production Project comprised of Bayer, the German energy producer RWE Power, and researchers from RWTH Aachen U. built a technical-scale pilot plant at Chempark Leverkusen that came online in February 2011.

The pilot plant is using CO2 from an RWE coal-fired power plant near Köln, Germany to produce polyol that serves as a building block for PUR flexible foam. The foam exhibits properties comparable to conventionally sourced foams, and its flame retardancy is better. And so the decision has been taken to begin industrial-scale production in 2015.

Laird’s latest blog post describes still more developments, for example moving beyond PUR to use CO2 to make building

blocks for polycarbonate (PC), another Bayer specialty, using excess solar and wind energy that otherwise would be wasted. You can find her post online, and an earlier Laird post on the same subject as well.

Ms. Laird deserves a thank-you for shining a light on a development that has had much too little visibility, yet whose environmental benefits could be immense. Could CO2, the highest volume greenhouse gas, be kept out of the environment by recycling it into useful plastics—which in turn can be kept out of the environment by recycling them? Putting irony aside, yes, it could.

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