New recycling may help combat climate change

Sustainability |  2 min. read
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Almost everyone agrees that reducing CO2 in the atmosphere may help combat climate change.

Following the Paris Accords and global agreements to reduce emissions, the work to find innovative solutions that cut emissions, while maintaining economic prosperity, has become even more pressing. As countries and energy companies work to reduce emissions and improve efficiency, finding ways to reduce or recycle CO2 emissions has been an elusive effort.

While carbon capture and sequestration, and other efforts to reduce CO2 or stop emissions before they ever are emitted into the atmosphere, are gaining steam, some of the solutions are expensive and still limited.

But thanks to new innovations from scientists, there are a growing number of programs that would capture CO2 and recycle it into fundamental building blocks to make other things.

The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been researching CO2 recycling programs in coordination with other labs, finally reaching potential breakthroughs that would reduce costs to the point where they are more economically feasible.

Lab leaders believe they are on the road to breaking down the CO2 emissions into building blocks that could be transformed back into original petrochemical elements, including polyethylene, the most common plastic in use today. They are achieving this through electrochemical and biological reactions to create small molecules such as carbon monoxide and methane that are easier to manipulate and reformulate into new molecules like ethylene, propylene and butylene.

Given the progress and improvements in molecular recycling for types of plastics, these new CO2 recycling efforts could mean numerous uses by breaking down used products into fundamental building blocks.

Similarly, engineers at Australia’s University of New South Wales-Sydney are using nanoparticles to convert waste CO2 into components that can be reused for industrial products including plastics and fuel. The UNSW approach differs from that of the US researchers, using high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, a method called pyrolysis, to allow zinc oxide and nanoparticles to turn CO2 into syngas, a hydrogen and carbon monoxide mixture.

The next challenge for the US DoE, UNSW, and other researchers will be scaling up their efforts to meet the overwhelming demand for CO2 recycling. How these efforts are implemented will also set the stage for further efforts to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, setting us on the path toward a more sustainable planet.

These technological and engineering breakthroughs could lead to a more circular and sustainable economy where we recycle and reuse more of the products we create and consume. Further, utilizing excess CO2 in the atmosphere to generate petrochemical-based consumer products could power a manufacturing boom, supporting jobs and communities.

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