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December 6, 2019

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Chemical companies going round in circles

Covestro China, an arm of the German specialty chemical company, is turning carbon dioxide from a climate villain into an environmental plus in reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

In the not too distant future, you may sleep on a mattress made from carbon dioxide, not petroleum-based plastic, according to Covestro.

Finding positive uses for carbon dioxide is one way the chemical industry is embracing the global concept of the “circular economy,” which seeks to eliminate waste and recycle resources. It’s a break from the traditional “take-make-dispose” industrial approach.

Holly Lei, Covestro China president, said company research and development specialists have spent nearly 10 years working on ways of using carbon dioxide as a raw material to produce plastics instead of relying on petroleum feedstock.

Covestro is not alone in such cutting-edge technology. The China arm of Canada’s Methanex Corp, a leading methanol producer, is using carbon dioxide and other raw materials to produce methanol in Iceland.

Zhang Jianning, Methanex China president, said the company hopes to introduce the technology to China soon.

Methanol is an important raw material in many basic chemical products and a clean alternative fuel. It is traditionally made from natural gas.

The company is now working with China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and other government departments to make methanol fuel for vehicles.

Methanol cabs

In the provinces of Shaanxi and Guizhou, more than 20,000 taxis will be running on methanol by the end of this year, according to Zhang.

“The circular economy will be the next significant trend and core focus of the chemical industry in its development,” said Zhu Ji, president of the China arm of US-based specialty chemicals company Cabot Corp.

The concept has been embraced by Chinese authorities as part of the goal of achieving more sustainable development.

“The circular economy and digitalization are the focus of the company’s future development,”said Covestro’s Lei. “But the circular economy requires the cooperation of an entire industry.”

“My prime work is to speed up implementation of the circular economy by our customers and by partners in our value chain,” said Covestro’s Chief Commercial Officer, Sucheta Govil.

Belgian chemical company Solvay SA endorses that view.

“In the next 10 years, the overall economic development situation will be very different from what it is today,” said IIham Kadri, Solvay’s chief executive. “Solvay wants to be a very important part of it. We believe that China may be a leader in circular economy.”

Circular systems reuse, share, repair, refurbish, re-manufacture and recycle to create a closed-loop system that reduces waste, pollution and carbon emissions.

The chemical and plastics industries, long villains to many environmentalists, are among the best positioned to adopt the concept, given their dependence on fossil fuels.

“Chemical products make our lives more beautiful,” said Lei. “But to solve the new challenges facing the industry, we are spending time and energy to research how to recover things through chemical methods.”

German chemical giant BASF launched its “ChemCycling” project to embrace circular economy, which provides a method of reusing plastic waste that is currently not being recycled, such as mixed or uncleaned plastics.

By using thermochemical processes, one of the chemically recycled methods, BASF utilizes these plastics to produce syngas or oils.

The resulting chemically recycled raw materials can be used as inputs in BASF’s production for the first time, thereby partially replacing fossil resources.

BASF has cooperated with its partners to produce some pilot products, such as mozzarella packaging, refrigerator components and insulation panels.


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