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How is CO2 being used as a raw material for plastics?
Posted by Emily O'Dowd on Jan 3, 2017

Copious amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted by cars, factories and power plants across the world. But CO2 is not just a climate-damaging waste gas; it can also be used as a renewable raw material. The German based Covestro is a leading international supplier of high-tech materials. Last month at Nova-Institute’s ‘Carbon Dioxide as Feedstock for Fuels, Chemistry and Polymers’ Conference, Covestro announced that they have just developed a new renewable process to produce high-quality plastics. This breakthrough innovation will allow the company to reduce its petroleum consumption whilst expanding its raw material basis. Covestro will work alongside a range of industry and research partners to deliver new potential for CO2 in a project known as the 'Dream Resource.' The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research will explore the different ways that CO2 can be used in insulating foam and other products in the plastic industry.

Covestro ( @CovestroGroup ) manufacturers polymers in 30 sites including Europe, Asia and America. The company employs over 15,800 staff producing sales of €12.1 billion. Their objective is to work on sustainable solutions for some of the greatest challenges such as climate change, resource depletion, population growth and urbanisation. The firm serves these global trends and the other major industries including the automative, construction and electronic industries. Covestro and its partners have already developed the technology required to use CO2 in elastomers through the Production Dreams project some time ago. These elastomers are solid but moldable plastics used in products such as hoses and seals. The demand for premium plastics in these sectors is expected to show continued growth in coming years.CO2 can function like petroleum, but by contrast, it is something in abundance. This waste gas has one thing in common with oil - it contains the element carbon, a central building block for the chemical industry. 

The Dream Production project, looks to develop a process that can use carbon dioxide as a raw material in plastics production. This achievement was made possible by first finding the right catalyst. The research community had been searching for one for decades. A catalyst reduces the activation energy, meaning the energy required to trigger a reaction with CO2. Otherwise, the process would not have been practical either economically or ecologically. At its site in Dormagen near Cologne, Covestro has inaugurated a production facility to manufacture the first product with this new method – a novel polyol. Polyols are precursors of flexible polyurethane foam, found in many everyday items. The resulting foams containing CO2 are designed for use in mattresses and upholstered furniture.

Dream Resource’s project coordinator and head of catalysis research at Covestro, Dr. Christoph Gürtler, said they are now taking the next step in the process to establish carbon dioxide as a raw material for the plastics and chemical industry. “With CO2 as a carbon source, we can increasingly dispense with traditional, fossil sources such as petroleum. After successfully incorporating it in a key precursor to flexible foam, we are now tackling the next challenge,” he added.

They will develop a new polyol to contain about 20% of CO2. This will replace a portion of the conventional, petroleum-based raw material. Tests have shown that the flexible foam containing CO2 exhibits the same high quality as conventional materials. But flexible foam is just the beginning. Covestro is not only working on follow-up projects to incorporate more CO2 in its materials, it also wants to manufacture as many other plastics as possible with a percentage of carbon dioxide. “However, technical implementation still requires a lot of research,” explained Gürtler.

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