New sustainable material: Renewable plastic from CO2 and plants

We do live in fascinating times. Impressive progress is being made recently not only with sustainable recycling of carbon fibre as described a few days ago. But now also the sustainable production of another widely used material apparently gives real reason for optimism.

Innovation Toronto reports: Two chemistry graduates at the Standford University, Aanindeeta Banerjee and Assistant Professor Matthew Kanan, just developed a method to produce renewable plastic from carbon dioxide and ordinary, non edible plants.

The plastics industry as is known still faces the huge problem called carbon footprint. Conventional methods for plastic production, big part of which produce polyethylene terephthalate (PET) aka polyester, demand lots of energy. Energy which often is still gained from fossil fuel sources and generates 4 tons of CO2 for every ton of PET that gets produced.

So the team looked for an alternative to PET and found one, reports the article –  “polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF). Made from ethylene glycol and a compound called 2-5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA).”

Why FDCA?  Among other advantages, “FDCA can be sourced from biomass instead of petroleum”.
But of course the classical bottleneck is also here: Scaled production, at commercially viable costs?

The team arrived a radically different approach: They turned waste into plastic. First by using furfural, “a compound made from agricultural waste”, abundantly available. But there was another problem: FDCA production in that case would require hazardous chemicals, high costs and much energy – not exactly a sustainable model combination.

So the team decided to use carbonate instead. Mixed it with CO2 and furoic acid (a furfural derivate), then “heated it to about 290 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) to form a molten salt. The results were dramatic. After five hours, 89 percent of the molten-salt mixture had been converted to FDCA…the next step, transforming FDCA into PEF plastic, is a straightforward process that has been worked out by other researchers”.

Why can this be great news for several industries?
“Because the CO2 required to make PEF could be obtained from fossil-fuel power plant emissions or other industrial sites….products made of PEF can also be recycled or converted back to atmospheric CO2 by incineration. Eventually, that CO2 will be taken up by grass, weeds and other renewable plants, which can then be used to make more PEF.”

The team remains cautious and modest: “We need to do a lot of work to see if it’s viable at scale and to quantify the carbon footprint.” Nevertheless, even the production of “renewable fuels and other compounds from hydrogen and CO2” are envisioned now.

Read the full article here.

About mele

I research and write about the intersection of yachting with the environment aka 'sustainable sailing'. From sourcing planet-friendly yacht construction materials, sailors for ocean science, clean regattas, renewable energies aboard right up to yacht recycling. Academic training in environmental science, sailor, living at the shores of the Dutch IJsselmeer. Want me to write for you, too? Get in touch!

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