Friday, 17 June 2016

Premiere for a New Raw Material: CO2

Today (17 June) Covestro has opened a new production plant in Dormagen, Germany that uses an innovative process that will help cut the use of fossil fuel based feedstock by partially replacing it with carbon dioxide (CO2). For the first time, Covestro is using CO2 to produce plastics on an industrial scale. The production plant for this innovative foam component made with 20% CO2 is at Covestro's Dormagen site near Cologne in Germany. The new process saves a proportional amount of the traditional oil-based raw material, thus making a contribution to sustainability that Covestro believes offers considerable potential. 

SusChem is also supporting research and innovation into the further utilisation of CO2 as a valuable feedstock for chemicals and fuels as part of a broad approach to enabling the circular economy and industrial symbiosis. The use of CO2 as a renewable feedstock features in SusChem's recent Strategic Innovation and Research Agenda (SIRA) and was discussed at our Stakeholder meeting on 16 June. 

SusChem believes that the utilisation of CO2 as a feedstock by the European chemical industry could be a key solution to reducing use of fossil fuels, reducing the EU’s dependence on imports of fossil resources and improving the security of supply of carbon feedstock. Exploiting sustainable carbon resources, such biomass and CO2 will enable production of more sustainable chemicals and materials with lower net CO2 emissions. 

This shift will result in reduced utilisation of fossil resources, and take industry a step closer to a true circular economy.

“We have to change the way we look at CO2, and we will. Using it as an alternative source of raw materials is a solution to some of the biggest challenges of our time – finding a replacement for finite fossil resources such as oil and gas and closing material cycles. Thanks to our innovative process and the launch of our production operations in Dormagen, we see ourselves as a pioneer in this area – true to our vision ‘To make the world a brighter place’,” said Covestro CEO Patrick Thomas at the opening ceremony. 

Long-term perspective
“This method of using carbon dioxide as a raw material is an important step as we move toward a sustainable future. The German Federal government is promoting the use of CO2 as a raw material in order to expand the chemical industry’s raw materials basis and open new avenues to sustainability,” emphasised Thomas Rachel, Parliamentary State Secretary from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The German government supported Covestro’s technology financially in the research and development phase.

Professor Ernst Schmachtenberg, Rector of RWTH Aachen University, added: “Making efficient use of the carbon dioxide molecule, which is normally slow to react, is a real scientific and technical challenge. We have made a breakthrough by combining application-centric basic research with research-based industrial practices.”

Covestro scientists worked hand-in-hand with experts from the CAT Catalytic Center in Aachen – a research institute operated jointly with RWTH – to find the right catalyst that would make the chemical reaction with CO2 possible. A team under researcher Dr. Christoph Guertler (pictured left) discovered the right catalyst to enable the use of CO2 for plastics production.

For mattresses and upholstery
In Dormagen, Covestro is now using carbon from CO2 to manufacture a new type of polyol. These are core building blocks for polyurethane foam – a versatile material that is used in many industries around the world and that we encounter throughout our daily lives. The carbon dioxide is chemically bound into the material.

The company has invested some EUR 15 million in the new plant, which has an annual production capacity of 5 000 metric tons. The CO2 used is a waste product from a neighbouring chemical company - a great example of the sort of value chains that will be the basis of a future circular economy. 

The new CO2-based polyol has been engineered initially for flexible polyurethane foam intended for use in mattresses and upholstered furniture. In terms of quality, the foam achieves at least the same high standards as conventional material produced using only petrochemical raw materials. 

Environmentally friendly processes
By eliminating the use of crude oil and saving the energy otherwise used to process that oil, the method is more environmentally friendly than conventional production processes. Thanks to the catalyst and the considerable energy contained in the remaining content of petrochemical raw materials, no additional energy needs to be expended to make the low-reactivity CO2 react.

If the new CO2-based products are received as warmly as is hoped, Covestro can envisage significant production expansion. In addition to flexible foam, the company is also working on manufacturing many other plastics with carbon dioxide. Its vision is to one day largely dispense with crude oil in plastics production.

Image credit: All images used in this article are (c) Covestro

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