Catalyzing a New Market: Converting CO2 into Plastics

Catalyzing a New Market: Converting CO2 into Plastics

By now you may have heard that the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE semifinalists are converting CO2 into an entire range of products that will benefit our everyday lives. And of the twenty semifinalist teams, five of them are actually turning the greenhouse gas into different forms of polymers and plastics!

These materials are used in a wide range of applications all over the world—but currently, they are manufactured using fossil fuels. That’s where our semifinalists’ technologies come in. Creating polymers and plastics by recycling waste CO2 could be a way to tackle climate change, while also increasing the sustainability of these materials. That’s why we sent our team at XPRIZE out to see just how well these technologies work.

One semifinalist team brought us a quick drive down the coast from XPRIZE headquarters to Huntington Beach, CA, where Team Newlight is based—a team that has developed and commercialized a cost-competitive carbon capture technology capable of converting CO2 into a plastic-replacement called “AirCarbon.”

They demonstrated how their product is made by extracting the carbon from greenhouse gases and using micro-organisms to build materials that replace oil-based plastics. Their goal is for AirCarbon to not only match the performance of oil-based plastics, but to actually outcompete those plastics when it comes to price.

“Our team is dedicated to building a more sustainable future by transforming the products that are part of our daily lives into high-performance products that capture carbon and change how we impact the world,” Newlight informed us.

Another semifinalist team focused on sustainability is Low-Energy Consumption CO2 Capture and Conversion. This team brought experts from Wyoming and China together to rally around finding ways to help our environment, and is committed to innovating environmentally friendly CO2 capture and conversion technologies.

Their technology involves using a transformational catalyst to significantly reduce CO2 capture energy consumption—and thus, the cost. The captured CO2 is then converted by using a regenerable material and H2O.

When explaining their vision for the future of carbon, the team described seeing carbon grow into something that is, “dependable, but fully controllable and economically recyclable.”

Across the world from these US-based teams is Team C4X, operating out of Suzhou, China. C4X is led by Dr. Wayne Song, the Vice President of the first public company to make Wood-Plastic Composite products—one of which was made from supercritical CO2.

This expertise is what led him to the Carbon XPRIZE. His team is working on a technology that separates CO2 from power plant emissions, then uses heat and a nano-sized catalyst to convert the CO2 and hydrogen into methanol. All of that remaining CO2 is then converted into supercritical CO2 that is injected into plastic extruders to make foam composites that have any number of applications—from being used in the dashboard of your car to acting as an alternative to wood..

The last team innovating with plastics took us up to Toronto, Canada, where we visited Team CERT—a multidisciplinary team made up of over 15 researchers with backgrounds ranging from chemistry and electrical engineering to photonics.

This team is all about efficiency—they’ve developed record performance catalysts for the reduction of CO2 into CO, which can be used as a feedstock for many materials including plastics and polymers. In doing this, the team harnesses clean and efficient renewable energy sources (think wind, geothermal, and hydro, along with solar) to drive their process.

“This is a really exciting competition to bring technology from the lab that’s at a very early stage, and accelerating the time it takes to scale up and get to somewhere where it can actually be deployed and be useful,” said Dr. Alexander Ip, member of Team CERT.

This is at the core of why the Carbon XPRIZE launched in the first place—not just to prove products like plastic could be created from carbon emissions, but to actually catalyze new markets for these products in a way that can ultimately have a real impact on climate change. We’re so excited by how the teams have approached this challenge so far.

But the innovation of our semifinalists extends far beyond the plastics industry. Stay tuned in the coming weeks to discover other markets being transformed by carbon conversion!

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