CO₂ as alternative carbon source
From climate sinner to useful material
Some 30 billion tons of CO₂ are emitted worldwide annually. But the greenhouse gas can no longer be considered solely as a climate damaging waste, because researchers from Bayer have discovered a way of turning carbon dioxide into a useful raw material.
Bayer employee Deniz Capar at a pilot plant in Leverkusen, Germany. The plant produces a chemical precursor with the help of CO₂
Oil, natural gas and coal and biomass are the traditional sources of carbon, relied on so heavily by the chemical industry. These four substances are the starting point for around 40 basic chemicals and more than 40,000 chemical products.
The problem is that fossil raw materials will run out in the not too distant future, as they are becoming increasingly expensive and a great deal of energy is needed to process them.
Now, however, it looks like a fifth source has been found that doesn't come with all these disadvantages: the ubiquitous greenhouse gas carbon dioxide could be used as a carbon source and replace some of the significant amount of oil used to manufacture plastics. To reach this goal, Bayer has initiated several projects with partners from the industry and scientific community.
Pilot plant in Leverkusen
Most advanced is “Dream Production,” an initiative to use CO₂ as the source of one of the two components needed to produce polyurethane, a foam material that is widely applied in furniture, athletic shoes or thermal insulation. And mattresses, the first application for the new raw material. The first CO₂-based polyurethanes are due to come to market from the middle of this decade.
Since the beginning of 2011, Bayer MaterialScience has been manufacturing test batches of the chemical substance needed at a pilot plant in Leverkusen, Germany. The CO₂ used in this process is sourced from a power plant operated by RWE near Cologne. It is removed from the flue gas and liquefied for transportation.
Closing the carbon cycle
“This new process was made possible by a scientific breakthrough,” explains project manager Christoph Gürtler. “We finally found the suitable catalyst experts have been searching for so long.” It enables the efficient reaction of CO₂, which is normally slow to react. The partners in the alliance are confident that the new process is also ecologically viable and will ultimately even reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
In another project called CO₂rrect that extends far into the future, Bayer is taking the next step and seeking to integrate electricity from wind mills in its efforts to make use of carbon dioxide for a double sustainability effect. One goal is to convert the CO₂ into carbon monoxide, a key basic chemical that could in turn be used to produce another component for polyurethanes. This would close the carbon cycle.