Plastics

Plastics are synthetic polymers produced mainly from crude oil. Plastic contains a range of synthetic or semi-synthetic polymerization products as they are long chains of atoms bonded to one another. They are lighter, stronger, corrosion resistant, durable and better insulator. Because of these properties, plastics replace many traditional materials like wood, metal, glass, leather, rubber etc. Hence plastics find use in number of industries. Majority of plastics are used in packaging industry for manufacturing bottles, cup etc followed by building and construction industry as insulators, pipes etc. Other places where plastics find its use are in furniture & furnishings, transportation, electrical/electronics, adhesives and industrial machinery. The production of plastics has increased from a meagre 1.5 million tonnes (MT) to 260 MT in 2007 while it dropped to 240 MT in 2008 on the back of global financial crisis. As plastics are produced from oil and gas through chemical processing, the production of 1kg of plastic requires roughly 2 kg of oil. In this process, certain amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere which is roughly around 3 kg of CO2 for every 1 kg of oil burnt.

In order to reduce the dependency of oil in manufacturing of plastics and eventually reducing CO2 content in the atmosphere, scientists and industrialists are researching on methods to convert the captured CO2 from industries to plastics. Scientists’ found a way to manufacture biodegradable plastics from CO2 and a class of compounds called epoxides almost 4 decades back. But this process was very expensive as this requires expensive catalyst, high pressure and temperature to produce plastics. Researchers have found a less expensive method of manufacturing plastics from CO2 using a catalyst that works at room temperature and low pressure. Novomer is a material manufacturing company based in New York, which is involved in developing of a high performance biodegradable plastic, polymer from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Novomer has been developing a method for plastics manufacturing by reacting traditional epoxide feedstock with carbon dioxide from waste streams to form plastics which is 40-50% CO2 by weight. By this, it is expected that the consumption of oil in plastics production is reduced by nearly half of the present consumption rate with the inclusion of CO2 in the production process. This has 2 advantages namely:

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  1. The CO2 captured from power plants and other industries finds its way into the production of plastics, there by solving the problem of CO2 storage.
  2. Secondly it reduces the amount of oil required for plastics production and thus reducing the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

It is estimated that for every 1 tonne of oil burnt, 3 tonne of CO2 is released into the atmosphere and for producing 1T of plastics, 2T of oil is required. So for every tonne of plastics produced, 6 tonne of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. As per 2008 data, global plastics production stood at 240 million tonne (Mt) (as per the data from Plastic Europe Market Research Group) which translates into 480 MT of oil consumption and 1440 MT of CO2 released into the atmosphere during the production process. Using the process developed by Novomer, the amount of oil required can be reduced by half as it uses only 50% fossil fuel feedstock in the form of epoxides and the remaining is sourced from the captured CO2. Hence for production of 1 T of plastics, roughly around 1 T of CO2 input is required which translates into 250 Mt of CO2 as input for 250 Mt of plastics produced annually. As plastics market is limited in size, it alone is not going to solve the world’s carbon dioxide problems as only around 1% of the total CO2 emitted goes into the production of plastics annually provided all the plastics are produced from the CO2.

1 tonne of CO2 is required for production of 1 tonne of plastic
250 Mt of CO2 is consumed for producing 250 Mt of plastics per year

Novomer's team is also looking at producing materials that would have longer life spans and could be used in applications such as plastic coatings for building materials, foam insulation, and coatings that require a non-biodegradable or longer life profile. The trick of the technology is getting the CO2 to react with other chemicals to convert it to a useful feedstock for materials without requiring a lot of energy. After years of trial and error, Novomer has found a chemical that works as an effective catalyst with a mixture of liquid epoxide and raw CO2. The catalyst zips the epoxide and the CO2 together, forming a polymer with the consistency of honey. Novomer's process requires 150 psi to convert the mix to a polymer, which means it is more easily scalable because it requires less energy, and thus less cost which makes the process more impressive.