Düsseldorf, Germany — Covestro AG is leading the way in using carbon dioxide as a feedstock in resin production.
The group's chief sustainability officer, Richard Northcote, discussed the company's ambitious goals in an interview with Amanda McCormack of Plastics News Europe.
Q: Covestro has recently launched the first plant to produce polyols from carbon dioxide, how is this going? What are the main targets for the plant?
Northcote: We just opened this pilot plant, and it is very much a pilot, it will be able to produce an industrial skill and now the work really starts on achieving the needs of the market and hopefully will see some of the bigger customers coming in. There's a huge amount of interest but we need to turn the interest into sales now.
Q: In addition to polyols, which products is Covestro developing from CO2 feedstock? Is polycarbonate being developed?
Northcote: Interestingly that's where the whole idea started, over 30 years ago we thought this might be a possibility and we looked into polycarbonate but at the time it was proving to be far too difficult. So we had an idea to look at polyols, and that's when we started to have the breakthroughs. It's really right at the start of something that is clearly very interesting. I think this has opened up a lot of potential avenues which we believe will be able to be used in future.
In regards to polycarbonate being developed, there is certainly work looking at that, but some of the other things that we know that we will soon be able to bring to the market will be things like thermoplastics, polyurethanes, TPU, coatings and adhesives applications there is some work going on that as well. The key was really to come up with the catalyst that allows you to use CO2 and use the R&D for chemistry, looking into what other products can we use CO2 in and what can we do with other C1 gases, such as methane for example. As long we can prove, which I'm confident we can, that we can do this on an industrial scale then I think a lot of our R&D will be focused in this area going forward.
Q: Are you thinking of setting up any other plants or expanding?
Northcote: When we talk about plants with equipping them closer to the market and the industries that they serve with something like this you need a supply of CO2 and that's not the sort of thing you buy from a supplier because CO2 is that it is in so many different places so it's about siting your plants next to the source of CO2. In the case of our current plant it is an ammonia plant and we're taking the CO2 straight off of it, so I think the siting of the plants would have to be in an industrial area where we know there are industrial gases being sent up into the atmosphere. So as long as it is near our own facilities, close to our own markets, then the options are really there.
It depends how many different products we can actually forsee using CO2 in the future as that dictates the volume of CO2 we are going to need. Really, when you look at this, and certainly the discussions I've been having in Brussels with people in the European commission and others, they are all really excited about it. It really is a breakthrough in closing the carbon loop and in places such as Brussels, where the circular economy is so high on the agenda, people are really talking about recycling all the time, reuse and recycling, and what it does is opens up the whole area of incineration again, because if you can incinerate a product at the end of its life, extract the energy that you have borrowed, capture the CO2 and then pump that into the circle again what we really start to do then is close the carbon loop.
That's a really different way of looking at it because we are constantly talking about recycling, and what people mainly mean when they talk about recycling is reusing plastics over and over again, which is fine but very difficult to achieve, if you start thinking about carbon and recycling carbon over and over again, then it becomes a whole new playing field that everyone is looking at. Even the most skeptical of people with regards to the products that are produced by plastics really start to get a different feel for how we as an industry are looking at some of the problems and how to address them.
Q: What are Covestro's overall sustainability goals? How is it planning on achieving these?
Northcote: We have set five main sustainability targets, these have become the direction we want to take.
If you look at the goals they look at different areas of what we want to do not just looking up the value chain but also backwards to suppliers and where we use raw materials. What we did initially when we set out with our sustainability agenda is to focus very much on people, planet, profit (3Ps) and we did something that I've since been told by others is quite unique, I reached an agreement with the board that anything we do going forward, whether it's new process technology, product technology or product development, we have to be positive in two of the P's and we cannot be negative in the third P.
What that means is if we come up with a new process that, for example, is beneficial to the environment, drives the profits, but that actually has a negative effect on society in general we would not pursue that. Anything that shows any negativity in any of the 3P's would be something that we would have to push to the side-lines and look at again to see if, for example, the economic situation had changed.
That's what started us and we pushed that through the organization and the organization was very motivated by what we were trying to do. I think we start to see ourselves as possibly pushing ahead of the industry with some of the targets we set. The first targets we set was to have a 40 percent CO2 reduction by 2020 and last year we almost hit that as we were at 39.4 percent using 2005 as a baseline. So immediately when our CEO, Patrick Thomas, saw that, we discussed it and we put it in front of the board that 40 percent was not ambitious enough and we should be going for 50 percent by 2025. There's no one else in the industry that is anywhere there or close to that at the moment based on 2005 figures.
The problem we have is that people are picking different base dates and obviously the further back you go the easier it becomes to make big numbers.
We've added to that to use CO2 intelligently. The guy heading up our procurement department is extremely focused on more sustainability, and more sustainable practice, so what we have actually done is set a target for 2025 of 100 percent of our suppliers being classed as sustainable. It's not that we are going to sit back and demand they do this on their own, we are very willing to get in there and help them.
The same is true of moving up the chain where we look at some of our customers and particularly a lot of our customers who are better known consumer brands, you also have very strong sustainability agendas, we are looking to partner more with them, we are looking to see what we can do in conjunction because we believe the combination of resources and knowledge will speed things up and lead to even more breakthrough technologies to considerably reduce the environmental footprint.
One of the other targets was 80 percent of our R&D spend will now be based on what we term as sustainability projects and basically what that means is that of all the total R&D amount that we allocate every year four fifths of that will be targeted at addressing the needs of the sustainable goals from the UN. There are 17 goals and as a business we directly have an impact on 13 of those so that would demand now that we focus all of our R&D or the bulk of it, I'd not be surprised if it was over 80 percent, on these areas because this is where the demand is coming from.
Another of my projects is project sunrise, which we have been looking at for the last six to seven years, on how do we take the technology that we have developed and how do we take that down to the base of the social pyramid to help to drive economic growth in some of the poorer areas of the world. The focus at the moment is mainly on four areas which are low cost housing solutions, cold storage and solar dryers and finally on sanitation with toilets and low-cost toilet construction. It is not just low cost it has to be long-lasting it has to be fast construction, and obviously polyurethane plays a huge role in this because it does lend itself to a lot of these things.
We have started working quite significantly now with Habitat for Humanity and we are doing quite a lot of work in the Philippines, but we are also looking now at places like Jordan and Iraq, where there are huge numbers of Syrian refugees that need to be housed, and the pressure is really on for fast construction to try to alleviate some of these problems. But what slows a lot of this stuff down is we are working with NGO's and we are working with governments, so that slows the whole process down quite considerably. So what we are now trying to do is find different business models that allow us to speed these things up, but I'm pretty confident once we start moving in certain areas it will really take off. And our target is extremely ambitious which is to have an effect on 10 million people by 2025.
In addition to that, there are other things that are not specifically targets. For instance, the CO2 polyol we're talking about, it is not our intention to keep that to ourselves. It is our intention to license that technology so it has a much greater input across the whole manufacturing sector and that we don't simply just use it for our own products. Thinking like that is one of the big changes we are starting to see in many companies, they are much more open to partnerships, more open to open innovation, and to sharing ideas and technologies. I think we all realize that's how we have the major breakthroughs.
The final target is carbon productivity, which is this idea we've come up with on how you measure the benefits that you can bring through your own production through carbon footprints. The whole theory is if you are going to use carbon how can you use it most wisely, where can you invest your carbon so you get a good return on it and not just burn it. 90 percent of the world's oil is just burnt so it is good if you can make something useful that gives you a return on that investment. If you take polyurethane insulation foam as an example, you take oil and you invest the carbon from that into a polyurethane insulation foam, over the life of that product you will save 70 times more carbon than you invested because of reduced emissions, lower energy consumption etc. So at the end of the life of that insulation you can then burn it, you can collect your original energy that you put into it, the carbon, and if you go through the whole CO2 thing you can then capture the end result and pump that back into other products. So it becomes a very sensible and very beneficial use of carbon to save carbon and at the end of it you've closed the carbon loop and if we use that it becomes very powerful.
We've just started on this journey a lot of my discussions are with NGOs, with legislative bodies, I raised it with the UN, and are talking here in Europe about it and again people really like this idea. What we now have to work on and have set ourselves a target of for the end of next year is to come up with a simple methodology that, up with some sort of global metric that gets people to look at how you use carbon in much more sensible ways than we currently do.
Q: What would you like to see achieved during your time with the company?
Northcote: I'm over the moon at what I am doing at the moment and when I look at the progress we've made in the last eight years particularly internally by getting people to not just think about sustainability but embrace it. We are lucky we have two chemistries in polyurethane and polycarbonate that lend themselves to more sustainable development. Now we are pushing for more sustainable product development.
On achievements, number one is to really break through on carbon productivity. I'd love to push the plastics industry in a new direction, I'm not sure I will achieve all I want to but I'm very happy with the progress made so far.