Commodifying carbon a real option

In current political and environmental talks, carbon dioxide is seen as a problematic waste product. (AFP)

In current political and environmental talks, carbon dioxide is seen as a problematic waste product. (AFP)

It also makes business sense.

In current political and environmental talks, carbon dioxide is seen as a problematic waste product. Big industry and power producers belch it into the atmosphere and the focus of most climate talks is on the necessity of lowering these emissions. And although some progress has been made in this regard and some countries have placed a cap on their emissions, little substantive progress has been made.

It all changes, however, by seeing carbon dioxide as a virtually free raw material and a commodity. In industrial reactions it is now being knocked together with various catalysts to create different kinds of plastics and fuel.

Patrick Thomas, head of material science at Bayer in Germany, told the Mail & Guardian: "The challenge is to take carbon dioxide and create polycarbonate [common plastic]." This comes about through so-called rare dream reactions and the company has discovered its own version after years of research. It now has a test plant in Leverkusen that is taking CO2 emissions from a local power station and turning them into plastic stuffing for mattresses.

"We have to stop thinking of carbon dioxide as a waste product that  you sequester in the earth or leave to go into the atmosphere, but [rather treat it] as a valuable feedstock for industry. Once it is a commodity, the whole dynamic changes," Thomas said.

The potential of these reactions has resulted in the United States government pumping more than $100-million into companies that are carrying out work in the field. One of these is Novomer in the US. Peter Shepard, its executive vice-president of polymers, said his company was rapidly ramping up its operations.

"By using carbon dioxide and propylene oxide, we create a polymer that has approximately 43%, by weight, carbon dioxide sequestered inside it," he said.    

Individual situations
This means it is creating a product out of waste that is seen as hazardous. And the reaction was simple enough for it to be done on any scale, he said. Although the company's plant is small, producing 500 tons of plastics a year, it can be rapidly enlarged and a small-scale plant can be built to suit individual situations.

The benefits of this were threefold, Shepard said. Carbon dioxide is cheap and industries will even pay to have their emissions dealt with, plastics that have carbon dioxide incorporated into them have a carbon footprint of up to eight times lower, and the resultant plastics are markedly superior to conventional plastics and have greater strength.

Shepard said he hoped the plastics produced from carbon dioxide emissions would quickly replace most conventional forms of plastic, which would have a tremendous impact on the planet because it would lower the demand for these plastics.

Chemists at the University of California have taken this thinking one step further. While trying to find a way to create oxygen for possible manned flights to Mars, they found that solar energy could be used alongside a catalyst to convert carbon dioxide into plastic and even synthetic fuels. In this process, solar energy breaks down carbon dioxide into oxygen (useful in space) and carbon monoxide. This can create plastics, or be combined with hydrogen to create fuel.

But althoough the commodification of carbon dioxide is rapidly growing and an important step, it is not yet the solution to emissions. Professor Philip Jessop, a leader in the field and professor of chemistry at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, said the technology would have to evolve into large-scale operations before such predictions could be made.

The technology has not been adapted in South Africa, where the focus of big emitters is still on sequestering carbon-dioxide emissions in the earth.

This process still treats carbon dioxide as a waste product and several studies have pointed out that this path of action is prohibitively expensive.

 
Sipho Kings

Sipho Kings

Sipho Kings is the person the Mail & Guardian sends to places when people’s environment is collapsing. This leads him from mine dumps to sewage flowing down streets – a hazardous task for his trusty pair of work shoes. Having followed his development-minded parents around Southern Africa his first port of call for reporting on the environment is people on the ground. When things go wrong – when harvests collapse and water dries up – they have limited resources to adapt, which people can never let politicians forget. For the rest of the time he tries to avoid the boggling extremes of corporations and environmental organisations, and rather looks for that fabled 'truth' thing. For Christmas he wants a global agreement where humanity accepts that sustainable development is the way forward. And maybe for all the vested interest to stop being so extreme. And world peace. And a sturdier pair of shoes. Read more from Sipho Kings

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