In the five years since the CAT Catalytic Center, a cooperative research effort between Bayer MaterialScience and RWTH Aachen University, was established, the center has grown into an important interface between science and industry. One of its major activities is research into the use of carbon dioxide as an alternative building block for plastics.
The "Perspective on Innovation 2012" program organized by Bayer in Leverkusen (Germany) included a visit to the CAT Catalytic Center at the technical university in the nearby medieval city of Aachen. This collaboration between the university and Bayer has successfully secured funding for another five years. Not only has the center become a magnet for top researchers around the world, it offers the university a window into the long-term problems and needs of the chemical industry.
"On the other hand, a company like Bayer obtains valuable input for its research and development pipeline, especially through the open innovation approach," said Christophe Gürtler, head of the Bayer MaterialScience catalysis program and director of the CAT Catalytic Center.
Or, as Ernst Schmachtenberg, rector at RWTH Aachen University explained: "Here at the University, we are good at taking money and turning it into knowledge. And Bayer is just the opposite: good at taking knowledge and turning it into money."
Chasing the "dream reaction"
Thus viewed, the collaboration between the two is a match made in heaven. Yet it is also one that is bearing fruit, especially in the field of CO2-based polymers. CO2-based polymers have long been an appealing idea - if only the problem of the low reactivity of CO2 could be overcome, a problem confronting scientists for decades. The sheer amount of energy needed to enable a reaction with CO2 had up to now rendered this an inefficient exercise in futility. It was, said Christophe Gürtler, "a dream reaction."
In 2009, the Dream Reaction project was initiated by Bayer to develop the catalysis technology needed for the efficient use of CO2 as a chemical feedstock - or, more specifically, as a source of carbon for the manufacture of polyether polycarbonate polyols, one of the two reaction components in polyurethanes, to reduce dependency on petroleum-based propylene oxide, the conventional raw material.
The subsequent successful development of a catalyst that could put CO2 to efficient use on a laboratory scale led to the launch of the "Dream Production" project. This involved the creation of a consortium consisting of Bayer, German energy provider RWE Power and researchers from RWTH Aachen University, to build a technical-scale pilot plant at Chempark Leverkusen .
Industrial production in 2015
This pilot plant came on stream in February 2011, using CO2 from the RWE coal-fired power plant in Niederaußem outside of Cologne to produce CO2-based polyol. Industrial production is scheduled to begin in 2015. Although this will initially serve as a building block for flexible polyurethane foam, the range of applications will soon be expanded to include coatings and thermoplastic polyurethanes, Gürtler explained.
The project continues to run successfully, with the foams produced showing properties comparable to conventionally produced foams, and a flame retardancy that is even