Scientists convert carbon emissions into plastics


Aerospace companies aiming to implement environmentally friendly plastics may be interested in a new development at the UK’s University of Southampton. Scientists from the university have invented a hybrid catalyst platform that can efficiently and sustainably convert carbon dioxide into versatile plastic materials.

Named Viridi CO2, the platform has emerged from doctoral research by the university’s Dr Daniel Stewart, which followed an MChem degree from Southampton’s School of Chemistry. During this research, he and Professor Robert Raja invented the hybrid, heterogenous catalytic platform (PCT/GB2019/053596), claimed to be capable of superior Carbon Capture Utilisation (CCU) potential compared with conventional Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) solutions.

Professor Raja’s group has been developing a predictive catalyst design rationale at Southampton for the past 15 years, but this new technology represents what they describe as a “significant advance” from the finite potential of CCS technologies, while offering sustainable alternatives for the advanced manufacturing of plastics through CCU.

The approach, which won the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) 2020 Emerging Technologies Competition, has focussed on the production of polyurethanes. These materials, which can be tailored to be either rigid or flexible, are currently created solely from fossil fuels and are single use.

One way to improve the sustainability of these materials is to derive the starting materials – in this case the polyol – from carbon dioxide. This process produces polyols with carbonate linkages that allow the polymer to be more easily broken down at the end of its life, and then recycled.

However, few catalysts are capable of performing this transformation. Current processes suffer from using highly toxic chemicals, or require synthetically demanding and costly processes to remove the catalyst from the polymer, as is the case for homogeneous catalysts. The few heterogeneous examples available all require forcing conditions with extremely high pressures and temperatures, and lengthy reaction times.

Viridi CO2’s catalyst platform is claimed to provide a route to polymer feedstocks that can be synthesised under more sustainable conditions with energy savings of up to 75%.

In future, the technology could be retrofitted to the output streams of petrochemical refineries to close the carbon loop, representing a major step toward the UK’s vision to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

Dr Daniel Stewart, EPSRC IAA Research fellow within the School of Chemistry at the University of Southampton, stated: “To have the endorsement of the Royal Society of Chemistry for the stage we’re at is phenomenal, and gives us real impetus to speak with investors and stakeholders and demonstrate our enthusiasm and expertise in this area.

“Our 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, leading to reduced costs. Unlike other alternatives, these catalysts can also be reused and synthesised in minutes.”

The research team have filed a patent for the discovery and are participating in the SETsquared Innovation to the Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) Programme, as they prepare to bring the technology to market .

Professor Raja, Professor of Materials Chemistry and Catalysis, added, “This ground-breaking research is motivated by the lack of technologies utilising carbon dioxide as a viable synthetic feedstock, despite its low price and huge abundance.

“30 million tonnes of polyurethanes are produced globally every year yet they remain scarcely recyclable. They find use across many commercial sectors and the industry is set to grow to US$70 billion by the year 2022. In the presence of uniquely designed catalysts, up to 50% of the polyol feedstock mass can be replaced with carbon dioxide.

“By developing a platform-based design, we have shown that components of the catalyst can be modified, tuning the catalyst towards desired physical properties within the polymers. Having worked with multinational catalyst and petrochemical industries worldwide for over 20 years, we are optimistic that the innovative and advanced characteristics of this catalyst platform can provide a significant manufacturing impetus to the UK chemical industry.”

The Viridi CO2 platform was produced with research funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), with further scale-up work and commercialisation activities supported by an EPSRC Impact acceleration (IAA) award. The team has been advised by the University’s Future Worlds start-up accelerator and business mentor Chris Spackman, together with technology transfer expert, Paul Wilkinson.

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Ever since his first flight on a TriStar, Adam has loved air travel, and since becoming editor of the Aircraft Interiors International brand he has really enjoyed the opportunity to be involved with the latest aircraft and airline products before they are even launched. Adam co-ordinates the running of the magazine, from commissioning articles and artwork, to ensuring that high standards of quality are maintained, as well as managing online content. Adam is proud to sit on the jury of the Crystal Cabin Awards and to have laid on the bed in Etihad's Residence.

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