Scientists and businesses are increasingly turning to an innovative strategy to fight rising emissions: turning waste carbon dioxide into a commodity. Now researchers at Newcastle University have unveiled a new technology to capitalize on this trend; the team, led by organic chemistry professor Michael North, has developed a method of converting carbon dioxide into cyclic carbonates -- compounds with wide applications in the chemical industry. Cyclic carbonates can also be used to make antiknock agents in gasoline, additives used to reduce engine "knocking" and thus boost fuel efficiency (while also lowering emissions). The scientists use a highly active catalyst derived from aluminum to prompt a reaction between carbon dioxide and epoxides, causing the formation of cyclic carbonates.
Though this reaction is nothing new -- chemists have been using it for years -- the Newcastle team greatly improved on it by slashing the amount of energy needed and by eliminating the need for ultra-pure carbon dioxide.
In addition to being used to simply produce cyclic carbonates, North believes it could also be retrofitted on coal-fired plants: "If our catalyst could be employed at the source of high-concentration CO2 production, for example in the exhaust stream of a fossil-fuel power station, we could take out the carbon dioxide, turn it into a commercially-valuable product and at the same time eliminate the need to store waste CO2."
Once the technology is optimized and ready to be implemented in commercial applications, North estimates it could use up to 18 million tonnes of waste carbon dioxide every year, including a further 30 million if it's used to make antiknock agents. North's team is currently focused on the U.K. market, but it's not difficult to see that this technology, if deployed in the rest of the world (particularly in coal-happy China), could reap larger dividends. Key to its success, as usual, will be the time it takes to bring to market.