The chemical sector consumes more energy than any other industry. He uses it not only as fuel but as raw material. The urgent need to reduce the use of fossil fuels raises an intriguing question. Could chemicals be made using carbon from the air instead of carbon from the soil?
The quest to capture carbon in this way began over a decade ago. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have now reported a significant breakthrough. They discovered a way to convert virtually all of the carbon dioxide captured by industrial exhaust gases into ethylene, a key component in plastic products. The process has also proven effective in creating other basic hydrocarbon molecules.
About 200 million tons of ethylene are produced each year. It is made almost entirely from fossil fuels from steam cracking, a process in which hydrocarbons are broken down using large amounts of heat. The chemical building block is used to craft everything from polyester textiles to food packaging and PVC pipes.
The Illinois team believe they have found a process using electrolysis that can convert six tons of carbon dioxide from industrial emissions into one ton of ethylene. This ratio improves on previous efforts. The process works with electricity. If renewable energy is used, the process is carbon negative, the researchers say.
This is perhaps where the technology reaches its limits. Converting carbon dioxide into useful hydrocarbons requires large amounts of energy. Current renewable technologies cannot provide this economically, says Paul Fennell, professor of clean energy at Imperial College.
The ethylene exhaust process is a significant advancement. But clean, cheap energy remains the key to decarbonizing the most polluting industries.
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