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CO2 as Chemical Feedstock

From CO2 to Plastic Foams: The Stuff That Dreams are Made of?

| Author / Editor: Dominik Stephan / Dominik Stephan

Carbon dioxide will be used to make a chemical precursor with the aid of a catalyst on a new production line.
Carbon dioxide will be used to make a chemical precursor with the aid of a catalyst on a new production line. (Photo: Bayer/Michael Rennertz; © ra2 studio - Fotolia.com)

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Dream Production is a new approach to making stuff that dreams are made of (at least if you are a chemist): Industry and scientists are working together on a project to produce chemical feedstock from CO2 which is extracted from power station flue gas emissions. The underlying reaction is revolutionary, but there is uncertainty surrounding the economic viability of the process. It remains to be seen whether this time the vision is more than just a dream.

This chemical reaction could mean the rehabilitation of a harmful substance. CO2, infamous as an industrial waste and greenhouse gas, could become a feedstock source for the chemical industry. Besides cutting harmful emissions, the new technology could also reduce oil and gas consumption. Plant photosynthesis removes all doubt that such a reaction is possible: All of the carbon needed for herbal cell growth is extracted from atmospheric CO2. However, there is one huge stumbling block associated with this fairy-tale chemical reaction: CO2 is a relatively stable molecule that is not particularly reactive.

So far, this low reactivity has made recovery of carbon from waste gas very unattractive. Now the chemical industry has set its sights on this dream reaction. Bayer Material Science is investing 15 million euros to build an initial industrial-scale (5000 t/a) production line in Dormagen, Germany, where CO2 will be used to produce polyols, typical precursors for polyurethane (PUR).

New Life for an Old Idea: CO2 as a Raw Material

The idea of using CO2 as a feedstock for plastics production has been around for more than 40 years and is resurrected during each and every oil crisis. The main problem is, however, that the molecule’s low reactivity makes the process economically unviable. Without some outside help, the reaction does not get off the ground. Having this in mind, the researchers at Bayer who are working on the waste gas utilization are concentrating their efforts on the development of a suitable catalyst.

The Chemical Industry’s Holy Grail?

“The reaction is more or less the Holy Grail of the chemical industry,” reported Dr. Karsten Malsch, Bayer’s Venture Manager for CO2 polyether. “Despite all of the research so far, no way has been found of using CO2 in larger molecules.” The dream reaction remains a hard nut to crack: The problem has haunted researchers for more than 40 years, but now, a solution could finally be at hand.

"We have succeeded in turning a waste gas that is potentially harmful to the climate into a useful raw material. That helps the environment and mankind, and we all benefit," said Bayer MaterialScience CEO Patrick Thomas.
"We have succeeded in turning a waste gas that is potentially harmful to the climate into a useful raw material. That helps the environment and mankind, and we all benefit," said Bayer MaterialScience CEO Patrick Thomas. (Picture: Bayer Material Science)

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A Hydrogen Infusion to Kick off CO2-Utilisation

Has the Holy Grail finally been found? Malsch seems convinced, but the road has been long: The Bayer team, working with researchers at the CAT Catalytic Center, has tried more than 200 different substances before discovering a zinc-based catalyst. Now, for the first time, the vision of making polyols from CO2 and propylene oxide, an oil-based precursor, appears to be within reach.

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