Recently I was inspired by one friend of mine’s blog, which discussed about biodegradable plastics and its opportunities. I googled that keyword, and I found that biodegradable plastics (or polymers) is related to my field in Chemical Engineering. I also found some madder ideas for saving the world, like synthesizing CO2 into polymer.
Polymer is how to call molecules that have a huge molecular weight (more than 104 while CO2 weighs only 44g/mol). Polymers are usually divided into two categories: natural ones and the synthetic ones. The Natural ones can be found in rubbers, cellulose and even in your body, like in your hair because proteins are also polymer. And the synthetic polymers also can be found everywhere, in the PET bottles, pipes, clothes etc. Because most of plastic materials are polymer, polymer is often said equal to plastics (but that’s not absolutely true, though)
Nowadays, our problem is that the annual world production of polymer materials was around 150 million tons in 1996, with the average per capita consumption of plastics in developed countries ranging from 80–100 kg per year. The rapid increase in production and consumption of plastics has led to the serious plastic waste problems, so called ‘White Pollution’. That is how the world calls the pollution due to white pollutants—primarily consisting of foam boxes, plastic bags, plastic cups, and other plastic materials.
White Pollution in China
The solutions for that problem, as my friend has mentioned above, it’s to synthesize biodegradable polymers. Biodegradable plastics may serve as a promising solution to the over-loaded landfills by diverting part of bulky volume plastics to other means of waste management, but there are some burdensome problems like the production cost of this kind of polymer is times higher compared to synthetic plastics as it involves production of biomass with expensive carbon sources. This has limited the use of this type to specialized areas like surgery and medicine.
However, I have found another solution, but keep in mind that it’s not free from problem and challenges. That’s to synthesize polymers from CO2 gas, as sort of to transform a problem into solution for other problem. According to Chimie Pharma Hebdo, 23 Feb 2009, (456), 7 (in French), The Norner Centre for Innovation and Technology in Norway (a subsidiary of the Borealis Innovation Centre) is to invest NKR 25 M over 4 years in making plastic from carbon dioxide. At present, they are facing problems how to make a suitable catalyst and to develop the industrial process. I can’t tell you furthermore because I haven’t searched corresponding journals or something like that, but I believe that It’s feasible. I know some reactions that turns CO2 into one monomer (like with Grignard reagent, which produce carboxylic acid). Even I don’t think that it would be a 100% CO2 polymer due to its difficulty to assemble a polymer, I still can’t wait for that centre to announce their success.
Beside the northern Europe, there is USA which also takes an effort to make a polymer from CO2 as mentioned on this The New York Times and also on links below.
As the anthropogenic CO2 emissions = 7 Giga ton per year, this research topic would be emerging in the future. Not only for chemist or polymer scientist but also for economics related field, mechanical engineering related fields etc. I can’t wait for that era to come!!!