Contributed by Pietro Tundo, Professor of Organic Chemistry, Ca' Foscari University of Venice
Can chemical industry evolve from a producer of CO2 to a consumer of CO2 as a carbon source?
The urgency of anthropogenic climate change deserves more research attention than ever before. How does climate change relate to chemistry? In a wide variety of ways such as, how chemistry can mitigate disasters like storms, draft, and floods.
In these situations chemistry can provide new materials and products. However, this is not where chemistry can be most beneficial. In fact, its involvement at on a molecular level has provided helpful compounds which do not interfere with the natural cycles of nature. A pertinent topic in this regard was the substitution of CFC with CHFC since the latter prevents the formation of holes in the ozone layer.
Chemists should think that they have a long road ahead for their contribution in mitigating climate changes. We only recently started to understand how organic matter is organized in nature. When we come to understand how living systems work chemically we can then create chemical cycles similar or very similar to what already occurs in the environment. We cannot introduce artificial chemical cycles which may interfere with those already operating in Nature by millions or billions of years.
However, a field of great potential that is still relatively unexplored is the chemistry of CO2. The key questions are: can we pursue an intrinsically safer, cleaner, more elegant and more energy-efficient chemistry utilizing CO2 chemistry? What is the potential contribution of CO2 as carbon feedstock? Presently, chemical industry accounts for high energy consumption and CO2 emissions since it is one of the main producers of CO2. The industry typically consumes 25-30% of the total energy used annually by the entire manufacturing sector.
It is surprising indeed that while the interest in the CO2 chemistry is mainly based on capture and sequestration technologies, limited interest is dedicated to the organic chemistry of its derivatives. If we look at what happens in the environment we see that inorganic carbonates are very common chemical species everywhere while organic carbonates are practically non-existent. Organic carbonates are intrinsically safe compounds and their chemistry is practically unexplored.
Nevertheless, CO2 and its derivatives can be used as feedstock, reduce the carbon footprint, open novel chemical transformations, gather renewable energy into the material value chain, and facilitate decentralized production. For instance, utilization of CO2 for value-added chemical production would be of important economic benefit. Significantly, CO2-based chemistry is an alternative to chlorine chemistry which continues to play an important role in industry and the economy. The exploitation of the new field of research will lead to safe compounds (polymers, solvents, new compounds, etc.) where the CO2 is chemically entrapped.
The key challenge for this field in moving forward is the application of the vast pool of experience on catalysis gained over the past decades. This application can begin to encompass a wider variety of bio-based and sustainable carbonate compounds for both the mitigation of climate change through carbon capture and utilization as components in the bio-based chemical industry of the future. This trend will not only modify industry’s role as a CO2 generator but may force its evolution from a producer to a user of CO2 . Is this a realistic prospective? Perhaps or perhaps not, but it should begin to be considered as a need.
To reach its potential, the use of CO2 will require interaction of academia and industry and interdisciplinary solutions between natural and engineering sciences. The transformation of chemical industry from a producer to a consumer of CO2 might be a big challenge for the future.
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