Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Carbon Dioxide into Plastics - On a Microscale

Of all the chemicals in all the towns in all the world [*], the chemical that is probably most despised at the moment is CO2, the notorious greenhouse gas. And since plastics are also widely despised, more than one researcher has had the idea of making plastics from CO2. While this is a clever idea in principal, in practice there are considerable problems.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere are around 400 ppm (= 0.4 parts per thousand = 0.04%), so the idea of pulling it straight from the atmosphere is a lost battle before you ever start. The more viable options are to use the CO2 generated at an industrial facility of some sort. Novomer announced late last week that they have found a way to convert the waste CO2 from an ammonia plant into polypropylene carbonate diols. Diols are a common reactant with isocyanates to make polyurethanes.

But the scale of this operation is more than a little bit underwhelming. They only made 7 tons of product. 7 tons! A measly 14,000 lbs. That amount is so small that no one, and I mean no one, is going to be interested. The 13 Gaylords that that material occupy will fit in my garage at home. Any injection molding process would run through that material in a day. This is equivalent to a chemist synthesizing compounds on a microgram scale start-to-finish.

I'm sure Novomer realizes this as does anyone else in the polymer processing industry, but when a PR blurb like that is picked up and published by Chemistry World, the general public is unaware of that limitation. Iit sure doesn't help anyone when this material is then never commercialized on a scale to have a significant impact on CO2 emissions.

I'm all in favor of this type of research, but the results should be trumpeted when commercialization scale is reached, not sub-pilot plant scale.

[*]"Casablanca" is my favorite movie of all time.

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