Brazil-based materials company Braskem and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) are joining forces to make a sustainable ethylene through from industrial carbon dioxide emissions.
These emissions are produced whenever coal, oil, natural gas or other carbon-rich fossil fuels are burned. A greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide is considered to be the single largest contributor to the ongoing processes of climate change. Capturing this waste gas before it is released into the atmosphere and utilizing this to produce sustainable feedstock for the production of chemicals and plastics therefore cuts two ways.
The technology both reduces the need for virgin feedstock and enables the production of more sustainable materials. According to a study from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the global chemical industry emits around 1.5 billion tons of CO2 every year from the use of energy combined with its industrial processes. Initial estimates of this capture and utilization technology's potential indicate that if all this CO2 gas were converted and recovered, more than 300 million tons of chemicals or thermoplastics resins could be produced.
“The goal of the partnership ... is to evaluate a potential pathway for capturing and converting CO2 emitted by our industrial operations and transforming that CO2 into a feedstock for our polymer manufacturing processes," said Luiz Alberto Falcon, responsible for Braskem's innovation and technology recycling platform.
The project is being developed by a team of researchers at the UIC College of Engineering's Department of Chemical Engineering. Braskem is contributing its expertise in commercial feedstock and polymer production to assist in the scale-up of the technology, and will help validate the theoretical and experimental studies produced by the university.
At UIC, Meenesh Singh, who is responsible for the project, has been studying the feasibility of CO2 conversion for a number of years. During his postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, he studied artificial photosynthesis and was part of a team that developed artificial leaves that, when exposed to direct sunlight, were capable of converting carbon dioxide to fuels.
He said that the goal of the present partnership between UIC and Braskem was to establish a fully-integrated, sustainable and energy-efficient system that can continuously capture CO2 from flue gas and convert it to ethylene for polyethylene production.
“Fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal are used extensively in industrial boilers to generate steam for the production of chemicals. The sustainable operation of boilers with enhanced energy efficiency and reduced carbon intensity requires the continuous capture of CO2 and its recycling into chemicals such as ethylene, which can have an immensely positive impact on the circular economy and provide more sustainable manufacturing processes. To develop a system with the required performance characteristics, our group at UIC will rely on our extensive and proven expertise in electrochemical CO2 reduction reaction and combine it with patent-pending technology to actively capture CO2 from the waste flue gasses,” he explained.
For Braskem, the project aligns with the company commitment to become a carbon neutral company by 2050. This target will be achieved by means of initiatives for carbon reduction, offsetting and capture, the expansion of the company's I'm green portfolio, which comprises products focusing on the circular economy, as well the diversion of 1.5 million tons of plastic waste away from incineration, landfill, or the environment over the next ten years.