On 30 May 2011, Fiona Harvey from the Guardian warned about carbon dioxide (CO2) emission figures to be published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), and our prospects seem bleak, to say the least. A record 30.6 gigatonnes CO2, mostly from burning fossil fuels, was released into the atmosphere in 2010 according to the agency – the worst figures to date.
Like many chemical-based products, polyurethanes are in part derived from crude oil. But instead of being burned into the atmosphere, polyurethanes are used for example as building insulation, thus helping to reduce energy consumption and protect the climate by saving approximately 80 times more energy than is used for their production. Now, it seems that new developments in polyurethane production have opened new doors for sustainable chemistry: the substitution of oil for CO2 as a raw material for polyurethane production.
For decades, chemists have considered substituting crude oil for CO2 to produce plastics as a “dream reaction”. Scientists of Bayer, RWE and the German RWTH Aachen University took on the challenge and decided to give a serious shot at replacing petroleum by CO2.
After four decades of research, the group of German scientists is close to making the dream come true. They have found a way to produce a chemical precursor into which CO2 is integrated and then processed into polyurethanes.
In February 2011, a pilot plant opened at Bayers Chempark in Leverkusen (Germany) aiming at producing high-quality plastics based on CO2. The industry has given the large scale project the inspiring name “dream production”.
Now coined as “raw material of the future”, CO2-based polyurethane have raised hopes among industry and the press. But what are the real implications of the discovery? Why do we get the feeling that we are on the verge of a critical change?
It means that further to its use for energy efficiency, such as in housing insulation or the cold food chain, there may be a time in the foreseeable future, where CO2 will no longer be a waste gas only. It could become a feedstock for the production of chemicals instead of going into the atmosphere. In Germany, for example, only 0.3% of the emitted CO2 is used by industry; clearly an untapped resource.
Chemists are very enthusiastic about it since the realization of their “dream reaction” is new and unprecedented. Using the greenhouse gas as a raw material instead of oil will likely make prices of end products less dependent on volatile crude oil prices. But customers will not only benefit from more stable prices, they will also contribute to fighting climate change by consuming products respectful of the environment, from production to the end of the product’s lifecycle.
Finally, replacing oil with CO2 to make polyurethane could participate in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, through using a waste gas as a raw material. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though and assume that tomorrow will only be made of CO2 based chemicals; after all we are talking about a pilot project and it will take a while before this nascent technology can be extended. But let us admit that this development does bring a lot of hope to the table.