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How a team of finalists for the German President’s Award is giving carbon a second life

An EU-funded initiative has made great strides in saving fossil resources and reducing the greenhouse effect with their process of using carbon dioxide (CO2) as a raw material in a wide range of products.

© Bilanol, Shutterstock

Are you losing sleep over climate change? What about doing your bit for the environment by choosing to sleep on a sustainably-sourced mattress made of foam that contains CO2? How about inside a building insulated with a material that also makes use of this greenhouse gas? This is all possible thanks to an innovative carbon capture and utilisation technology that partly replaces fossil-based raw material with CO2 for use in chemical and plastics industries. Developed as part of the EU-funded Carbon4PUR project, the novel process aims at using mixtures of CO2 and carbon monoxide (CO) that are generated during steel production to produce polyols – key components of polyurethane-based insulating materials and coatings that are otherwise obtained from crude oil. The project’s value creation potential for industry and its contribution to resource efficiency and a circular economy through the reuse of CO2 was also acknowledged with a nomination for the 2019 German Future Prize. A team with members from Carbon4PUR coordinator Covestro and project partner RWTH Aachen University was among the three finalists shortlisted for the German President’s Award for Innovation in Science and Technology. “The three nominees have developed a catalytic process that utilizes carbon dioxide derived from exhaust emissions as a starting substance for the chemical industry at a market competitive cost,” as stated in a news release on the German Future Prize website.

Industrial symbiosis

The Carbon4PUR project’s industrial symbiosis makeup is a crucial part of CO2 and CO utilisation, and can help save greenhouse gas emissions. The term refers to the collaboration between different sectors or enterprises, in which materials, energy, water, by-products and waste are exchanged. In the case of Carbon4PUR, the focus is on CO2/CO containing streams where waste carbon from the steel industry is used as raw material in the chemical industry for manufacturing various products. “These include, for example, flexible foam for mattresses and upholstered furniture as well as binding agents and adhesives,” according to the German Future Prize website. Other areas of application span rigid foams used in insulation, elastic fibres for textiles and detergents. “The best part is that this process lowers the need for fossil fuels in polyol production as well as the energy demand along the value chain. The emission of climate-damaging gas is correspondingly lower at this point.” The German Future Prize website also states: “To illustrate the benefits of the carbon cycle created also during production on an industrial scale, Covestro has been running a demo plant to produce polyols with a carbon dioxide content of up to 20 percent.” The plant can “produce up to 5,000 tons of CO2-based polyols every year.”

Green Deal

The ongoing Carbon4PUR (Turning industrial waste gases (mixed CO/CO2 streams) into intermediates for polyurethane plastics for rigid foams/building insulation and coatings) project is scheduled to end in 2020. Its vision is in line with the European Green Deal proposed by incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. In a speech, Von der Leyen, who referred to the Green Deal as a “must for the health of our planet and our people – and for our economy,” said: “If we do our job well, the Europe of 2050 will be the first continent in the world to be carbon neutral.” For more information, please see: Carbon4PUR project website

Countries

Germany