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CO2 as resource: How greenhouse gas becomes plastic

Reading time: 4 min

Mother Nature has shown us how it works: In the same way plants take CO2 from the atmosphere and use it for growth, people can also draw on CO2 as a resource. The technologies this requires are already being developed. The process known as Carbon Capture & Utilization (CCU) combines them intelligently – to make long-life, high-value plastics, for example.

One thing is clear: To temper the speed of climate change, we need to get a grip on CO2 emissions. In some cases they can be avoided completely, in others at least reduced: We can plant trees that bind CO2, we can store CO2 underground, or we can simply not produce it in the first place, as seen when we replace combustion engines with battery or fuel-cell vehicles for example. In some areas, however, CO2 is a main component of the chemical process and emissions cannot be avoided or reduced.

CO2 as resource

This is precisely where Carbon Capture & Utilization (CCU) comes in, where we capture and use CO2. This term is applied to technologies that use CO2 as a resource. “In a CCU process, you take CO2 to produce fuels or plastics for example”, explains chemist Sorin Ivanovici. As the OMV project lead for the “C2PAT” (Carbon to Product Austria) project, he looks at how OMV can sensibly apply its knowhow to a CCU process and utilize CO2.

We use CO2 as a resource by bringing it into a loop using Carbon Capture Utilization in order to then make renewable plastic.
Sorin Ivanovici, OMV Project Lead C2PAT, OMV Refining & Marketing

The journey from greenhouse gas to valuable plastic

The first step involves capturing the CO2. “There is especially huge potential in the industrial sector. That’s why we capture the COdirectly at the chimney of a cement factory – at Lafarge in Mannersdorf, for example, around 700,000 metric tons of COis emitted annually”, says Sorin. “To be able to then use this CO2, we need hydrogen (H2), ideally green hydrogen. And we get that via electrolysis from renewable energy sources like wind or solar power”.

CO2 meets H2

CO2 and H2 are now sent to a synthesis unit – where the molecules are split and then reassembled. This results in hydrocarbon compounds (CxHy). “These hydrocarbon compounds are very similar to those in crude oil and that’s something we are intimately familiar with in the refinery. Here they are processed into substances like ethylene and propylene, i.e. precursors for plastics production”, explains Sorin. Plastic manufactured in this way can be found for example in solar panels, electric vehicles, water and sewage pipes, smartphones or internet cables.

Closing the loop

For the reason that everything makes even more sense when we think in circles, the key thing is to keep the plastics in a loop, recycle them after use, and process them into new products. This happens in our plastics recycling facilities. Some plastics can be recycled mechanically – an area in which Borealis has excelled for many years. Other are subjected to chemical recycling, for example in our recycling unit in the OMV Schwechat Refinery. If a plastic has really reached the end of its useful life, then it can still be thermically recycled, i.e. incinerated. For example – and here is where the next loop closes – as energy for cement production. “The CO2 released during the incineration process does not then enter the atmosphere”, says Sorin. “Instead it is captured in our C2PAT project and starts its journey anew as a resource”.

Facts & Figures

CCU project C2PAT (Carbon To Product Austria)

CO2 savings of more than 10,000 metric tons per year in the pilot phase and potentially 700,000 metric tons annually when scaled up for industrial use
Project partners: Lafarge Zementwerke, OMV, VERBUND and Borealis
Project goal:

  • Cross-sector design, build and operate of an industrial unit for carbon capture in the cement plant in Mannersdorf, Lower Austria.
  • Production and use of green hydrogen from renewable energy sources.
  • Establish the requisite infrastructure to process the carbon captured and turn it into hydrocarbons.
  • Use the hydrocarbons produced to make petrochemical feedstock for plastics production.
  • The carbon footprint of products made in this brand-new way would be significantly improved thanks to the resources used.

Project phases:

  • Phase 1: Evaluate the practical feasibility of the project as well as aspects related to economics and process engineering.
  • Phase 2: Technical development and commissioning of the individual industrial pilot plants by 2025.
  • Phase 3: Scale up the pilot plants to full size and thereby scale up the technology for large-scale industrial application by 2030.

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