As more industries begin to utilise carbon capture, technologies could help reduce both emissions and plastic waste by turning captured CO2 into low-carbon, degradable polymers, according to a recent study by IDTechEx.

The report, titled ‘Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Utilisation 2022-2042: Technologies, Market Forecasts, and Players’ explored both opportunities and challenges associated with CO2-based polymer technology. 

In 2019, global plastic production rates hit 460m tonnes and - although more recycling-based technologies have been deployed in recent years - an OECD study revealed that plastic consumption is set to increase. 

To advance a circular carbon economy, captured carbon could be utilised to created various polymers with electrochemistry, biological conversion, and thermocatalysis. 

Considered the most mature CO2 utilisation technology, thermocatalysis can directly produce biodegradable linear-chain polycarbonates (LPCs) or be harnessed indirectly by using chemicals such as methanol and ethanol for polymerisation reactions. 

LPCs such as polyurethanes (PUR) are commonly used in sectors such as electronics, mulch films, foams, and biomedicine/healthcare. 

Source: IDTechEx

One of the main components in PUR are polyols, which can comprise up to 50% (in weight) CO2. 

To make these polyols, CO2 is combined with cyclic ethers (ring-like molecules called epoxides that contain oxygen) before being combined with an isocyanate component to make PUR. 

Although not entirely carbon-free, fossil-based processes are supported by waste CO2 to save on raw material costs when create plastics through thermochemistry. 

Less mature technologies such as electrochemistry and microbial synthesis are also being developed. 

Considered more developed than electrochemical processes, biological processes such as microbial synthesis have reached the early-commercialisation stage, with companies such as California-based Newlight having developed a method to turn captured CO2, air, and methane into degradable polymer using a specific microbe. 

According to the report, other successful commercial operations currently include Asah Kasei’s efforts to make aromatic polycarbonates from CO2. 

US-based LanzaTech has also worked with major brands such as Unilever, L’Oreal, On, and Danone to make polymer precursors from carbon emissions captured from industrial processes. 

Despite it being an apparent ‘win-win’ technology, there are still concerns over whether it will actually lead to significant emissions, in addition to potential financial barriers that may slow down commercialisation. 

“As the world’s thirst for plastics does not seem to fade, a circular carbon economy may help maintain people’s lifestyles by fostering a petrochemical industry that sees waste CO2 as a viable feedstock,” stated IDTechEx.