Using the right carbon sources

30 June 2020 | Muriel Cozier

Renewable carbon could be the route for the chemical industry’s sustainable future

Researchers from the nova-Institute, Hürth, Germany have proposed the use of ‘renewable carbon’ as a route by which the chemical and plastic industries can shift toward more sustainable and climate-friendly production and consumption.

Publishing their findings in Greenhouse Gases Science & Technology, the research team states ‘Staying with the widely accepted concept of ‘decarbonisation’ is not only inaccurate for the chemical and plastics industry, it is also dangerous, since its shifts attention away from the inevitability of carbon use and therefore from the question of the ‘right’ carbon sources.’

Renewable carbon, the research team says, entails all carbon sources that avoid or substitute the use of any additional fossil carbon from the geosphere. Renewable carbon can come from the biosphere, atmosphere or technosphere. Renewable carbon circulates between these three, creating a carbon circular economy.

Shifting chemical and plastics production to renewable carbon will require significant efforts from industry, policy makers and society as a whole. For each source of renewable carbon, different factors will determine its success, for example the availability of land is important for biomass sources. Political support is also critical the researchers say, with measures such as a ‘very effective fossil carbon tax, (applied to fossil carbon as a feedstock, not CO2 as an emission), ’being considered.  Similar concepts are also being discussed in the framework of the green deal proposed by the European Commission, where is it is called the carbon border adjustment, the research team says.

The paper also asserts that while the move to renewable energy systems can be called decarbonisation, organic chemistry cannot be decarbonised and for the chemical industry to develop into a sustainable sector it would have to use nothing but renewable carbon as a feedstock. The researchers highlight that the relative share of fossil resource consumption and GHG emissions by the chemical industry is set to  triple by 2050. The two main reasons for this estimate are; the increase in the use of solar and wind power and electrification of transport, along with increased demand for goods such as furnishing, as the global population grows.

Looking to the future of renewable carbon in the chemical sector, the research  team comments ‘…It can be assumed that in a sustainable future chemical industry, bulk chemicals will primarily rely on chemical CO2 utilisation through methane, methanol and naphtha, while speciality chemicals and complex molecules will more likely be  produced from biomass (and CO2 fermentation). At the same time, mechanical, chemical and enzymatical recycling will reduce the need for additional renewable carbon overall.

Greenhouse Gases Science and Technology: DOI:10.1002/ghg.1992

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