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mattbrowne's avatar

What do you think about using carbon dioxide as a new raw material?

Asked by mattbrowne (31449 points ) April 27th, 2011

“Bayer is taking a new direction in the production of high-quality plastics with the help of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the energy sector. A pilot plant has come on stream at Chempark Leverkusen, Germany, to trial the new process on a technical scale. The plant produces a chemical precursor into which CO2 is incorporated and then processed into polyurethanes that are used in many everyday items. As a result, CO2 – a waste gas and key contributor to climate change – can now be recycled and used as a raw material and substitute for petroleum. The innovative process is the result of the “Dream Production” project; a collaboration between industry and science. Bayer is working on the project with the energy company RWE, which supplies the CO2 used in the process. Polyurethanes themselves also help to reduce energy consumption and protect the climate. When used to insulate buildings from cold and heat, they can save approximately 70 times more energy than is used in their production.”

http://urethaneblog.typepad.com/my_weblog/2011/02/bayer-co2-urethane-pilot-plant.html

Sounds too good to be true?

Does this approach have the potential to kill carbon dioxide capture and storage projects? Selecting geologically stable sites for long-term carbon dioxide storage is very controversial.

Any thoughts?

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12 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

Very interesting. I have some questions. When the products are discarded then is the C02 released as the products breakdown? Are they only capturing already produced C02, or are they creatng more C02 for the process? Are plastics created by a part of petro that is not being used otherwise? Are we actually taking oil out of the ground to produce polyruethanes? Or, is the oil already being drilled for gas and energy?

Sorry so many questions. I don’t know enough about the science.

LuckyGuy's avatar

That sounds like a great idea IF, (note the big “if’”) the total additional CO2 released making the energy used in the process is less than the CO2 released in the conventional process. One would have to do a complete energy and Green House Gas analysis to see if this is truly worthwhile.

For example, we all know it it possible to spend energy and break down the CO2 into C and O2. But it takes so much energy to do so, the CO2 produced in the energy making process is more than the CO2 reduced. Entropy is hard to resist.

The big game changer will be if / when Fusion is tamed and energy is free. That will drastically change the equations.

Cruiser's avatar

I have the same questions and suspicions @JLeslie has. One other Q is what is the carbon footprint of this process over the current insulation choices. PU’s have isocyanates which is a nasty chemical and the out-gassing from the chemical reaction gives me a headache.

My guess here is that this new process will be a whole lot more expensive too.

mattbrowne's avatar

@JLeslie – Using CO2 to create polyurethanes relies on a endothermic chemical reaction which absorbs energy. So the effort makes most sense when the energy supply doesn’t come from fossil fuels. Yes, right now, oil is the basis for making polyurethanes. From what I understand, burning oil yields more energy (exothermic chemical reaction) than what is required for making polyurethanes from CO2.

mattbrowne's avatar

@worriedguy – This article digs a bit deeper into the chemistry and engineering approach behind it:

http://www.specchemonline.com/blog/view/gas-escape

and it mentions a BASF effort too. Another article mentions that the efficient use of CO2 is only possible because a suitable catalyst, for which experts had been searching for four decades, has finally been discovered.

http://www.theengineer.co.uk/channels/process-engineering/polymers-from-co2/1007817.article

mattbrowne's avatar

@Cruiser – Do all polyurethanes have isocyanates?

Cruiser's avatar

@mattbrowne As far as I know they do as that is the backbone of the polymer chain and what makes a polyurethane a polyurethane. Most I know and use are an isocyanate prepolymer blended with a polyall and reacted with a blowing agent usually water. There are various isocyantates though and TDI (toluene diisocyanate) is the worst offender and very problematic for you if you inhale it. Super nasty toxic stuff. I have seen people go into anaphylactic shock breathing that stuff.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Cruiser – What could be a strategy to counter this?

Cruiser's avatar

@mattbrowne They use a safer less toxic isocyante called MDI. The good news is Polyurethanes are completely inert when catalyzed and fully cured.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Cruiser – So something good might come out of it after all? Otherwise a publication of such a success story would make no sense, right?

Cruiser's avatar

@mattbrowne I would like to think that. All too often I see these great new inventions with good intentions back fire or derail because of creating more problems than they solve. Or in the case of much of the new “green” technologies they require more energy to produce thus having a larger carbon footprint than the old technology they are attempting to replace.

I do know of a new soy based polyurethane chemistry that looks very promising, but does it require more water, fertilizer, farming, harvesting and processing energy and again a larger carbon footprint than the current petroleum based chemicals?

mattbrowne's avatar

@Cruiser – The argument that new green technologies require more energy to be produced is not valid, because initially there are never any lessons learned and they are no best practices and no economies of scale yet.

Think of the very first wheeled vehicle. Building it 5500 years ago required far more energy than continuing the transport of goods without it the traditional way during the lifetime of this vehicle. I’m sure there were many people who thought the inventor was a fool. People often resist change.

The ‘more energy for production’ argument was created to discredit green technologies, with the word green written as “green”. The break even for with solar water heating was reached many years ago and photovoltaics is very close.

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