Old dogs and new tricks were the focus at a headlining trade fair for plastics and rubber in Germany last week. At K-Fair in Dusseldorf on Friday, the world learned about EnCO2re, a pan-European project that proposes to turn plastics manufacturing on its ear through the use of repurposed carbon dioxide.
The project is the work of Climate-KIC, a massive European innovation partnership focused on climate innovation; and Covestro, a manufacturer of high-tech polymer materials based in Germany.
It’s early days yet, but EnCO2re has demonstrated an unprecedented capacity to repurpose known pollutants into usable and valuable resources.
With this technology, researchers are using high-purity CO2, a typical by-product of chemical manufacturing, with a view to replacing the petroleum content in plastics.
Early results—with polyurethane fibres and flexible plates containing 20% CO2—are encouraging. That means that the materials contain 20% less propylene oxide, the material typically employed in polyurethane production.
While going beyond that is possible and is the ultimate goal, doing so would introduce quality control issues. Any more than a 20% CO2 content, warn the scientists, may affect a material’s properties.
More than that, the technology allows pollutants to be converted into usable and valuable resources. So far, the researchers are using high-purity CO2, a by-product of chemical manufacturing or beer making. They would like to be able to capture less concentrated CO2 from steel plants and electricity generation in the future.
The environmental problems of plastics are well known, but the modern world’s dependence on these materials is undeniable. Plastic has spent the last half-century becoming a societal essential.
But the need to make the stuff without fossil fuels is pressing. Just as bio-based feedstocks and improved recycling have helped shrink the environmental sins of other industries, CO2 reuse presents an opportunity to apply closed-loop processes to the plastics industry and, hopefully, make plastic production a less filthy practice.