Closed-loop carbon: Where does CO2 fit within a low-carbon economy?

EXCLUSIVE: Businesses need to stop "demonising" carbon and should instead treat it as a valuable raw material that can enhance product specifications and cut key environmental footprints if treated correctly, a sustainability expert has said.

Richard Northcote, the chief sustainability officer of high-tech polymer supplier Covestro, believes that finding a metric to successfully use carbon from power plants or natural gas as a raw material could align businesses strategies to cater for the goals of the Paris Agreement, whilst driving a circular economy.

Germany-based Covestro produces a range of adhesives, coatings, polycarbonates and polyurethanes and has recently unveiled a series of new sustainability targets for 2025. Goals are now in place to half greenhouse gas emissions and spend 80% of research and development (R&D) financing on projects tailored towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And Northcote believes that carbon could be a key enabler for his business in these areas.

“People talk about decarbonisation but, for a scientist or a chemist, it is impossible,” Northcote told edie. “Why is it that we hate carbon so much when it is everything around us? It’s one of the basic elements of life

“We looked at addressing the Paris Agreement and the 2C pathway. Then the SDGs come out and we started thinking about using carbon to help with these goals. The bulk of carbon that we take out of the earth, we burn – if we can get any return on that, then it is a good start. People will be pushing production processes; people will push the amount of carbon being used. I honestly believe that’s how people will be sourcing and buying in the future.”

Indeed, one of Covestro’s 2025 goals is to “get the most out of carbon”. Under this pillar, carbon productivity is being used to convert CO2 from a waste gas and use it in raw materials. The process aims to split CO2 into carbon and oxygen molecules for use in raw materials.

Although in its early stages, this concept is already producing results: at its site in Dormagen near Cologne, Covestro is producing the material, branded as Cardyon, and will come into the market this year. Further research is going on to see where else CO2 could play a role as a raw material. 

The new polyol contains about 20% carbon, which has replaced the traditional petroleum-based raw material. Tests have also shown that the foam is flexible and possesses the same qualities and capabilities as conventional products.

Considering that the world produces more than 35 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, Covestro is tapping into an abundant source to be used in its products. But both the Paris Agreement and the SDGs call on the private sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 80% of the nation’s emissions derived from human-caused CO2 in 2014.

Metrics and methods

But, as Northcote points out, the quest to reduce emissions doesn’t have to reduce the production of this potential raw material, as long as carbon productivity is aligned to the overall goals of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs. With both of these landmark targets paving the way to the low-carbon economy, Northcote believes that new business models should make the most of carbon productivity to help keep emissions down.

“We’ve taken a very logical approach whereby the Paris Agreement sits right at the top of our call,” he said. “The SDGs give us a pathway and a roadwork to invest our product and business against. Underneath these comes the low-carbon economy and embedded in this is the circular economy.

“The circular economy is good as long as it doesn’t damage the low-carbon economy. If you continue to recycle materials and invest into high intensity energy processes, then you have to do something better with that energy of those materials. We need to use less carbon across the lifecycle and embedding it into products can help.

“Incinerating and capturing CO2 and reusing it starts to create a circular flow of carbon and that becomes extremely interesting – we need to start looking at waste gases as virgin stocks of the future.”

Despite already creating enhanced products through the initiative – dubbed the Dream Production project – Covestro is now seeking to establish a global metric that creates the platform for other companies to adopt similar practices. The firm is working in partnership with market catalyst Volans, chaired by John Elkington, to deliver the first stages of the metric, which Northcote hopes to have ready this year. If successful, the metric would highlight the use of carbon in products as a viable and economic method to compliment the low-carbon movement.

Carbon cupcakes

Carbon productivity is beginning to gain traction as a viable manufacturing method: last September, the XPRIZE Foundation innovation platform announced a four-and-a-half year competition aimed at turning CO2 into an instrumental material asset. The Foundation is awarding $20m to the winning research team and entries are already raising eyebrows. Biofuels, building materials and even toothpaste and cupcakes have all been produced using carbon productivity and conversion.

Earlier this year, an Indian chemicals company introduced a world first to the carbon capture market, by utilising subsidy-free technology to turn CO2 from its own boilers into make base chemicals with a wide range of uses.

Matt Mace

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