How to make recycled plastics from CO2 to slow climate changes

It’s morning, and you are waking up on a foam mattress partially made from greenhouse gas. You don a T-shirt and slip-on sneakers that contain carbon dioxide from factory emissions. After a hard run, you stop to get a cup of coffee and then throw the cup in the trash.

You are confident that it will eventually biodegrade into harmless organic material. You use a shampoo that has been around for many years, and then you slip into a dress made from smokestack emissions. With a smile on your face, you head to work knowing that your morning routine has helped make the Earth’s atmosphere a tiny bit cleaner.

Does it sound like a fairy tale? Hardly. These products have been sold all over the globe. Others are in development. These are part of an increasing effort by industry and academia to reduce the damage done by centuries worth of human activity, which has released CO 2 as well as other heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere.

It is imperative to act. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in its 2022 report that rising temperatures had already caused irreversible damage to the planet and more human deaths and disease. The amount of CO 2 being emitted is on the rise. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, global CO 2 emissions could increase from 34 billion metric tons in 2020 to nearly 43 billion by 2050 if current growth and policy trends are maintained.

Carbon capture and storage (or CCS) is one strategy to mitigate climate change that the IPCC has long recognized as having “considerable” potential. CCS is a technology that has been in use since the 1970s. It traps CO 2 from smokestacks and ambient air and then pumps it underground for permanent storage. According to the Global CCS Institute, there are currently 27 CCS facilities around the globe, 12 of which are located in the United States. They store an estimated 36,000,000 tons of carbon each year. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $3.5 billion to finance four additional U.S. capture facilities.

The carbon captured could be used for other purposes than just storage. The IPCC has added carbon capture and usage to its list this year. CCU captures CO 2 and integrates it into carbon-containing materials like cement, jet fuel, and raw materials for plastics. CCU is still in the early stages of development and commercialization. It could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 20 Billion tons annually by 2050, more than half of today’s emissions, according to the IPCC.

This recognition was a major victory for a movement that had struggled to emerge in the shadow of CCS, according to Peter Styring, a chemist and global CCU expert from the University of Sheffield, England. He adds that many CCU-related businesses are forming and collaborating with one another and with governments all over the globe.

Volker Sick, a mechanical engineer from Michigan, stated that CCU has “enormous” potential in terms of both its financial and volume potential. He spoke at the CCU conference held in Brussels in April. Sick is a University of Michigan student and director of the Global CO 2 Initiative. This initiative promotes CCU’s mainstream status as a climate solution. He said, “We are not talking about something nice to do but doesn’t move the needle.” It moves the needle in many different ways.”

The Plastics Paradox

Carbon dioxide is a common ingredient in many products. CO 2 can be used to make soda, and dry ice foods, and to convert ammonia into urea to fertilizer. The focus on CO 2 products as a strategy for slowing climate change is new. Lux Research, a Boston-based market researcher, estimates that the CCU market today, which is valued at $2 billion, will grow to $550 billion in 2040.

This market is driven largely by the addition of CO 2 to cement, which can improve its properties and reduce atmospheric carbon — as well as by jet fuel which can lower the industry’s large carbon footprint. CO 2-to plastics is a niche market right now, but it aims to tackle two crises simultaneously: climate change as well as plastic pollution.

SOURCE: IEA – International Energy Agency

Plastics are made of fossil fuels. This is a mixture of hydrocarbons that have been left over from ancient organisms. Refined crude oil is used to make plastics. This oil is then reduced into smaller molecules by a process known as cracking.

These smaller molecules are called monomers and they form the basis of polymers. Monomers like ethylene, propylene, and styrene are linked together to make plastics, such as polyethylene (detergent bottles, toys, rigid pipes), polypropylene(water bottles, luggage parts), and polystyrene (“plastic cutlery,” CD cases, Styrofoam).

It’s A Difficult Bond To Break.

Carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide is extremely stable and can remain in the atmosphere for up to 300 years. Because of its stability, CO 2 is difficult to separate and combine with other chemicals. The reaction requires a lot of energy.

Chemical Bond (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Ian Tonks, a chemist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis says that this is the main energy problem of CO 2.. “Energy will be required to fix CO 2 to plastics. We are trying to find this energy in innovative ways.”

The catalysts may be the answer. These substances can speed up chemical reactions and reduce energy consumption. Researchers in the CO -2-to plastics field spent over a decade looking for catalysts that work at room temperature and pressure. This allows them to coax CO 2 to create a new chemical identity. There are two main types of these efforts: biological and chemical conversion.

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