Scientists make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide, plants

Scientists make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide, plants

9:49 AM, 16th March 2016
Scientists make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide, plants
Chemistry graduate student Aanindeeta Banerjee and Assistant Professor Matthew Kanan have developed a novel way to make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide and ordinary plants.

STANFORD, US: Scientists at Stanford University have discovered a novel way to make plastic from carbon dioxide (CO2) and inedible plant material, such as agricultural waste and grasses. Researchers say the new technology could provide a low-carbon alternative to plastic bottles and other items currently made from petroleum.

“Our goal is to replace petroleum-derived products with plastic made from CO2,” said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford. “If you could do that without using a lot of non-renewable energy, you could dramatically lower the carbon footprint of the plastics industry.”

The research is published in the journal Nature.

Changing the plastic formula

Many plastic products today are made from a polymer called polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also known as polyester. Worldwide, about 50 million tonne of PET is produced each year for items such as fabrics, electronics, recyclable beverage containers and personal-care products.

PET is made from two components, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, which are derived from refined petroleum and natural gas. Manufacturing PET produces significant amounts of CO2, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

“The use of fossil-fuel feedstocks, combined with the energy required to manufacture PET, generates more than four tonne of CO2 for every tonne of PET that's produced,” Kanan said.

For the Nature study, he and his collaborators focused on a promising alternative to PET called polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF). PEF is made from ethylene glycol and a compound called 2-5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA).

“PEF is an attractive replacement for PET, because FDCA can be sourced from biomass instead of petroleum,” Kanan said. “PEF is also superior to PET at sealing out oxygen, which is useful for bottling applications.”

Despite the many desirable attributes of PEF, the plastics industry has yet to find a low-cost way to manufacture it at scale. The bottleneck has been figuring out a commercially viable way to produce FDCA sustainably.

Turning plant waste into plastic

The Stanford team solved the problem using a more benign compound: carbonate. Graduate student Aanindeeta Banerjee, lead author of the study, combined carbonate with CO2 and furoic acid, a derivative of furfural. She then heated the mixture to about 290 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) to form a molten salt. 

The results were dramatic. After five hours, 89 percent of the molten salt mixture had been converted to FDCA. The next step, transforming FDCA into PEF plastic, is a straightforward process that has been worked out by other researchers, Kanan said.

Recycled carbon

The Stanford team’s approach has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions, Kanan said, because the CO2 required to make PEF could be obtained from fossil-fuel power plant emissions or other industrial sites.

Products made of PEF can also be recycled or converted back to atmospheric CO2 by incineration. Eventually, that CO2 will be taken up by grass, weeds and other plants, which can then be used to make more PEF.

“We believe that our chemistry can unlock the promise of PEF that has yet to be realized,” Kanan said. “This is just the first step. We need to do a lot of work to see if it's viable at scale and to quantify the carbon footprint.”

Kanan and colleagues have also begun to apply their new chemistry to the production of renewable fuels and other compounds from hydrogen and CO2.

The other Stanford co-authors are graduate student Graham Dick and former postdoc scholar Tatsuhiko Yoshino, now at Hokkaido University in Japan.

The research was supported by Stanford University through the Center for Molecular Analysis and Design, the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

© Stanford University News

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