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Plastics a leading candidate in market-based CO2 capture and conversion project

Norbert Sparrow

June 1, 2016

4 Min Read
Plastics a leading candidate in market-based CO2 capture and conversion project

In many ways, CO2 is the perfect feedstock: It’s in plentiful supply, eminently renewable and free. Moreover, capturing CO2 and transforming it into products could contribute to limiting carbon emissions and make a dent in tackling climate change. While various carbon capture and conversion technologies exist, economic viability has been a tremendous hurdle. The Global CO2 Initiative, which was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 2016, has the ambitious goal of capturing 10% of global CO2 emissions and transforming them into valuable products via a market-based approach. One of the initial market segments that the project will focus on is plastics, a “low-hanging fruit,” in the words of Chairman Bernard David.

Bernard David

The founder of the Global CO2 Initiative, David describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. He has built several businesses, including officesupplies.com, which he sold to Office Depot. He has turned his attention to sustainability over the past 16 years.

Alarmed by the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, three years ago David convened a group of people at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena ranging from “the largest company in the world to incredibly bright people” to determine whether it was feasible to capture CO2 emissions and reuse them as feedstock. “They said to proceed onward,” David told PlasticsToday. That led to another confab at Stanford University in March 2015, which included former U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, who is on the Global CO2 Initiative advisory board, and former head of corporate venture capital at BP Issam Dairanieh, PhD, who was named CEO of the initiative this month. “We spent a day and a half doing a deep dive into the chemistry behind the capture and its transformation into products,” recalled David. The consensus, there again, was to move forward, which he did on the global stage that is the World Forum.

Issam Dairanieh

Through the Global CO2 Initiative and its research arm, CO2 Sciences Inc., Dairanieh estimates that converting CO2 into products could have a market value of $800 billion to 1.1 trillion annually by 2030. In a study done with McKinsey & Co., the group came up with 25 promising applications, including construction materials, fuels, carbon fiber and, notably, plastics.

At the outset, the group was not just considering the environmental impact of CO2 emissions—although that was certainly a motivating factor—but emphasized its transformation into products as a great business opportunity, explains Dairanieh. “We wanted to quantify that [opportunity] and looked at different market segments. Plastics will be one of the first sectors to market because of the relatively high price of feedstock.” Adds David: “As part of our market assessment, we looked at the willingness to pay as an input, and plastics is one market that will truly absorb the higher cost of carbon capture.” That expense, it should be noted, will be significantly reduced in the years ahead, add  Dairanieh and David, as research and development work continues. The Global CO2 Initiative will do its part in advancing the technology through scientific grants expected to total up to $100 million annually for 10 years.

The most promising applications for CO2 reuse. Graphic courtesy Global CO2 Initiative.

There is a great deal of nascent technology and ideas both in carbon capture and its transformation, notes David, but it is difficult for researchers within academe as well as industry to procure funding. The initiative intends to comb through global research and identify opportunities that make the most sense. The differentiator in the Global CO2 Initiative is an emphasis on end-to-end solutions, stresses Dairanieh.

Carbon capture technologies have been used for many years in different parts of the world, says Dairanieh, but it’s mostly being done for compliance reasons and, in many cases, is not economically feasible. “What we are doing is identifying newer technologies on the capture side and helping to bring them to market through joint ventures and other financial vehicles.” By deploying a “stealth technology” to identify the most promising research, “we will be able to identify it faster than anyone else,” says Dairanieh. “And we are going to inject a business element into the funding model." Seasoned industry professionals brought in at an early stage will provide guidance to researchers on what would be acceptable to the market and not just what works technologically. “We think our combination of screening, mentoring and coaching will enable efficient early-stage technology development,” says Dairanieh.

The Global CO2 Initiative already has its eyes on some emerging technologies in the research pipeline. Dairanieh cites one company that project leaders are looking at that may reduce the cost of carbon capture by 50%. On the conversion side, a technology that has piqued their interest would allow the use of captured CO2 to make carbon fiber at a fraction of the current production cost.

We are emitting 37 gigatons of carbon annually, the mass equivalent of 1.2 billion garbage trucks, notes the initiative on its website. “And it stays there for hundreds of years,” adds David. “The cumulative effect has to be dealt with. The only things you can do with CO2 is to capture and bury it or to use it.” The latter is the smart thing to do, he adds, “and represents a true market opportunity.”

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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