Oil makes the world go around. This fossil resource drives cars and aircraft, is a basic ingredient in many drugs and is found in virtually all plastics. But petroleum reserves are limited. Something we have in abundance, however, can be used in its place: carbon dioxide. This waste gas has one thing in common with oil: It contains the element carbon, a central building block for the chemical industry.
The expert community has long dreamed of using CO2 as a raw material. One challenge it faced was that as an end product of combustion, CO2 is inert. Large amounts of energy are required to encourage the molecule to enter into a chemical bond.
Together with partners in industry and research, Covestro tackled this challenge in the Dream Production project, ultimately developing a process that can use carbon dioxide as a raw material in plastics production. This achievement was made possible by first finding the right catalyst. The research community had been searching for one for decades. A catalyst reduces the activation energy, meaning the energy required to trigger a reaction with CO2. Otherwise, the process would not have been practical either economically or ecologically.
New production plant
At its site in Dormagen near Cologne, Covestro has inaugurated a production facility to manufacture the first product with this new method – a novel polyol. Polyols are precursors of flexible polyurethane foam, found in many everyday items. The resulting foams containing CO2 are designed for use in mattresses and upholstered furniture.
The new polyol contains about 20 percent CO2. In other words, it replaces this portion of the conventional, petroleum-based raw material. Tests have shown that the flexible foam containing CO2 exhibits the same high quality as conventional materials.
But flexible foam is just the beginning. Covestro not only is working on follow-up projects to incorporate more CO2 in its materials, it also wants to manufacture as many other plastics as possible with a percentage of carbon dioxide. The objective of all these efforts is to one day dispense with petroleum at a greater extent in plastics production.