Is CO2 the New Fossil Fuel? A Closed Carbon Cycle for the Chemical Industry

RWTH-led research published in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America" journal

The heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide, or CO2 for short, is responsible for global warming. In order to instead exploit this carbon material’s potential and thereby minimize its effects, CO2-emissions can be recycled and utilized to manufacture high-quality products. By capturing waste CO2 from emissions or from the atmosphere we can replace fossil carbon sources.

A team of researchers led by Professor André Bardow from the RWTH Aachen Chair of Technical Thermodynamics has now demonstrated for the first time that carbon capture and utilization has the potential to completely uncouple the global chemical industry from fossil resources. Furthermore, in 2030, the year studied, the release of up to 3.5 giga tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions could be prevented. These savings amount to about 6.5 percent of the greenhouse gas emitted in 2017 worldwide [IPCC].

In collaboration with the University of California in Santa Barbara, the RWTH researchers show at the same time, however, that such massive savings of emissions can only be reached if electricity from renewable sources is made much more available. A chemical industry completely based on CO2 raw materials would need at least 18.1 petawatt hours of renewable energy. That is more than half of the worldwide power demand projected for 2030 and surpasses current targets for the production of electricity from renewable sources by far.

These calculations are based on a model of the chemical industry developed at RWTH, which depicts the production of the 20 highest-volume chemicals, such as ethylene, for instance. These chemicals combined amount to slightly more than 75 percent of global chemical industry emissions.

The study, which was funded by the EIT Climate-KIC, demonstrates that these chemicals can be produced in a manner that is virtually carbon neutral and therefore illustrates what a chemical industry could look like that is independent of fossil resources.


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Source: RWTH, press release, 2019-05-14.