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Turning carbon dioxide from pollutant to raw material

Recently, the RSC’s Chemistry World highlighted the work of Econic Technologies. Formed in 2012, this UK company intends to produce polyols (precursors to polyurethanes) and polycarbonates.

Why the interest in a small company offering  the kind of basic plastic resins that have been produced in vast quantities for more than 50 years? The reason is that it intends to make them from carbon dioxide. Econic will use catalysts developed by Professor Charlotte Williams and her team at Imperial College, London. These novel materials allow small molecules such as propylene oxide to combine in 1:1 ratio with carbon dioxide, forming long, polymeric molecules of polycarbonate.

The catalysts are highly effective at forming the desired straight-chain polymers, rather than cyclic molecules that are less useful. They contain cheap metals of low toxicity, like zinc and magnesium, and continue to work even if water is present.

Compared to conventional ways of making polycarbonates, the new technology means that less petrochemical-based propylene oxide is used, while also allowing carbon dioxide from “carbon capture” systems to be sequestered away from the atmosphere in useful products. However, it is by no means the only process. For example, US-based Novomer demonstrated tonne-scale production of similar polymers from carbon dioxide back in 2013.

In 2013, global plastic resin production was just under 300 million tonnes, whereas total carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere was around 18,000 million tonnes. Even without detailed calculations, it is clear that incorporating carbon dioxide into plastic resin cannot offer a complete solution to the problem of reducing climate-changing emissions.

But they are nevertheless important in illustrating a more general point. Investment by governments in university science, and by the private sector in companies that can take academic discoveries to market, are needed  if we are to address climate change. The UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act commits the country to reducing its carbon emissions to 80% less than 1990 levels by 2050. With such a demanding target in place, the role of Econic and other innovators will be vital.

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