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Toronto researchers convert CO2 waste into common ingredient in plastics
TORONTO -- As world leaders grapple with how to reduce their countries’ carbon dioxide emissions and the United Nations warns of an impending climate disaster, a team of researchers from the University of Toronto have come up with a way to convert the harmful greenhouse gas into one of the most widely used industrial chemicals.
Using a device called an electrolyzer, which uses renewable electricity to drive a chemical reaction, the researchers converted CO2 and water into ethylene, an ingredient in plastics.
Ted Sargent, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto and the project’s lead, explained that ethylene is an important manufactured chemical that is used in everything from medical devices to synthetic fabrics.
“The ethylene market is about a $100-billion a year market so it’s a huge industry,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday.
By capturing and recycling CO2 waste into ethylene, Sargent said there is an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously eliminating the need to extract more oil to make plastics.
“Renewable ethylene provides a route to displacing the fossil fuels that are currently the primary feedstock for this chemical [ethylene],” Sargent said.
Already five years in the making, the carbon-neutral pathway the researchers have developed is still being perfected. In its latest iteration, the team partnered with chemistry professors from the California Institute of Technology and improved the system’s efficiency and lowered its operating cost.
The researchers’ work is described in a paper published in the journal Nature.
As for its practical application, Sargent acknowledged that more works needs to be done before the system can be commercialized.
“A lot of us believe that we need to find new strategies to make CO2 into value,” he said. “At the moment it’s something we’re trying to avoid, it’s a liability, but by being able to synthesize something that we need anyway and the market will pay for, we’re creating a market for the consumption of the avoidance.”