The chemical industry transforms available resources into the products we all need and desire. Carbon is the main element for many chemical products, as well as for a large variety of products varying from food to materials. It can also serve as energy source. During the last two centuries, the main source for carbon was (non-renewable) fossil resources. For Europe’s production to be more sustainable, we have to consider alternative carbon sources and production pathways. There are multiple viable alternative sources for fossil feedstocks.
Obtaining carbon through nature
CO2 exists naturally in the atmosphere. Plants capture CO2 through photosynthesis while growing. They can build carbon in their structures using only water, carbon dioxide, and solar energy. This is also referred to as producing biomass, which can be used as a feedstock in bio-based chemistry.
Cefic believes that renewable resources of biological origin offer the chemical industry an opportunity to diversify its feedstocks to produce bio-based products if managed sustainably. In its Mid-Century Vision, Cefic has put forward the assumption that biomass consumption for production of chemicals will have doubled by 2050 with respect to 2018. Ensuring such growth meets struct sustainability criteria will be crucial.
Obtaining carbon from plastic waste
In a linear economy, once a product or article containing carbon has reached the end of its life it is considered waste. The chemical industry has found ways to transfer waste into a resource for carbon and thus transforming a linear economy into a circular one, for instance, where plastics are concerned. Most plastics are based on carbon. With chemical recycling technologies, the industry has developed complementary solutions to mechanical recycling to recycle mixed or contaminated plastic waste that otherwise would be incinerated or sent to landfill. As such, plastic waste can become a source for circular carbon offering the same quality carbon as used in the original product.
Obtaining carbon from industry
Another source of carbon is CO2. One source for concentrated CO2 is the emissions from industrial production sites. It is possible to capture this CO2 before it enters the atmosphere and recycle it into carbon. This carbon is then re-used as feedstock for new chemicals and products. Since new value is given to the carbon (from CO2), this process is called chemical valorisation of CO2.
Recycling carbon from CO2 (and CO from industrial waste gases) is one of the options the chemical industry can consider to reduce the environmental footprint of chemicals and polymers, develop the use of alternative carbon feedstock, and improve carbon circularity.