Carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, and fossil fuels – three well-known issues causing catastrophic environmental damage. In the past, fossil fuels were heavily relied upon, but supplies are diminishing rapidly. While new sources have replaced them, the damage caused by releasing huge amounts of harmful carbon dioxide over the last century has resulted in a warming climate.
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Climate change mitigation remains a high priority, with a focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero levels. There are many ideas on how this might be achieved, including carbon capture and storage, or carbon dioxide conversion for example.
Researchers from the University of Southampton have been studying the latter and developed a hybrid catalyst platform that efficiently and sustainably converts greenhouse gas into a versatile plastic material that could be used in mattresses, clothing, and building installations.
ViridiCO2 is a novel mitigation solution developed by chemistry researchers Dr Daniel Stewart and Professor Robert Raja, and is one of eight promising start-ups from the University of Southampton aiming to make the world smarter, safer and more sustainable as part of the Future Worlds start-up accelerator project at the university.
“Our ultimate goal is to play a pivotal role in achieving global net zero emission targets,” explains Stewart. “Quite simply, we have come up with a process which allows chemical manufacturers to directly replace fossil fuels with carbon dioxide in the production of high value chemicals.”
ViridiCO2’s catalyst platform has been engineered to contain highly active sites capable of activating carbon dioxide. “As carbon dioxide is inherently stable, these sites vastly reduce the amount of energy required to perform chemical transformations with CO2, enabling the production of high-value chemical products under much lower energy regimes,” explains Stewart.
The novel hybrid catalyst platform is capable of maximum carbon dioxide insertion under lower temperatures, pressures, and dramatically reduced timeframes. These benefits provide superior energy efficiency and high productivity, meaning reduced costs, and unlike other alternatives, the catalysts can be reused and synthesized in minutes.
“Furthermore, ViridiCO2’s catalyst is a solid (a heterogeneous catalyst), allowing facile separation post-reaction, reducing time and costs associated with catalyst removal, without which leads to compromised products,” says Stewart.
The duo believes the patented technology could be retrofitted to the output streams of petrochemical refineries, effectively repurposing the carbon dioxide waste and closing the carbon loop. It would be a major step towards achieving the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050.
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Before starting this research, Stewart identified three problems to tackle; the first is a chemical manufacturing, which accounts for 6% of greenhouse emissions, including one billion tons of CO2 a year from direct industry emissions, and an additional 1.8 billion tons from heat and electricity production. “Secondly, chemicals are produced almost solely through fossil fuels but fossil fuels are dwindling so we need to reduce reliance on them,” says Stewart.
There is also the issue of non-recyclable polyurethanes used in many commercial sectors; in the presence of uniquely designed catalysts, up to 50% of the polyol feedstock mass could be replaced with carbon dioxide, says Stewart. The platform-based design has shown that components of the catalyst can be modified, tuning the catalyst towards desired physical properties within the polymers.
Scaling up the Solution
“The need for a more sustainable way of living is huge; everyone recognizes this but it’s not an easy thing to tackle,” states Stewart. “A lot of ideas fail because they’re not scalable but we believe our technology is scalable, efficient and economical.”
The hybrid catalyst platform will be aimed at chemical manufacturers in the first instance and could save 20% of all fossil fuels for chemical manufacturers, potentially reducing emissions by eight million tons per year.
It could then branch out and tackle emissions from other industries, specifically the founding industries that work in cement, steel, and iron, which contribute a further 10% towards global carbon dioxide emissions.
Stewart says he hoped his PhD would be high impact; “During my research we realized we had created something that worked outrageously well and we ran with it – and then we realized the commercial potential.”
“Chemical scale up is unpredictable but we’re doing everything we can to really make a difference to the world,” he adds. “We’re reaching crisis point and we need to do something and I will be proud to be a small part of that change.”
References and Further Reading
Nurse, J. (2021) ViridiCO2: re-purposing emissions to close the carbon loop – Future Worlds: https://futureworlds.com/viridico2-re-purposing-emissions-to-close-the-carbon-loop/. Accessed 17 June 2021.
Nurse, J (2020) Emerging spinout for turning carbon emissions into plastics honoured by Royal Society of Chemistry – Future Worlds: https://futureworlds.com/emerging-spinout-for-turning-carbon-emissions-into-plastics-honoured-by-royal-society-of-chemistry/. Accessed 17 June 2021.