Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bottling Up the Carbon

Plastic seems like a necessary part of modern civilization. It's easy to say we should do without it, but it's thoroughly integrated into so many parts of life it would be hard to extract it, short of a full-scale crash of our economic and industrial model.

But does it have to come from petroleum?

A recent article in Discover had this to report:

[plastic bottle manufacturing] contributes to a global greenhouse gas hit of more than 200 million tons of carbon dioxide each year — the same amount about 150 coal power plants generate annually...

[Researcher Matt] Kanan’s team developed a process that uses carbon dioxide and furfural, a compound derived from corn harvest waste. First, they converted furfural into furoic acid, a common food preservative. Next, they had to break the furoic acid’s strong hydrogen-carbon bond. Normally this requires an expensive base (the chemical opposite of an acid) that’s reactive and unstable — considerable hurdles to eco-friendly mass production. But the team discovered a workaround by heating the acid to 390 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, carbonate (a weak, non-hazardous base) can break the hydrogen-carbon bond. So when they mixed the hot furoic acid, carbonate and CO2, the result was a compound that could be turned into plastic.

Another plus? This technique, published in the journal Nature, not only uses existing plant waste but consumes large amounts of CO2 and could be applied to other types of chemical manufacturing as well — a boon to our increasingly CO2-saturated atmosphere.
That's right. This plastic doesn't just use waste plant material instead of edible food: it actually removes carbon from the atmosphere.

The only thing I wonder about the resulting bottles is whether they get recycled or composted.

2 comments:

Gina said...

What are the chances that this new manufacturing process will enter the mainstream anytime soon? What is the incentive for plastics manufacturers to change? I personally love the idea. The challenge will always be getting existing manufacturers to embrace the change and execute it.

Tracy Buck said...

I would love that, I do like the convenience of plastic bottles and always recycle them, but I will stop buying them if something like this doesn't start soon.