Using CO2

Most Periodic Tabloid readers realize we have too much CO2 in our atmosphere to support a stable climate. Watching the climate change conference going on in Durban, South Africa this week, it’s also evident that the world’s political systems are largely deadlocked on ways to slow the rate of addition of CO2 to the atmosphere. So if we can’t stop putting this lowly gas into the air, could we remove it instead?

One way would be to plant more trees, which would obligingly extract CO2 to use in photosynthesis. How many trees would be needed? One calculation I’ve seen estimates that we’d have to cover with trees a land mass larger than the United States to effectively reverse the global warming trends. And then of course, what would we do with all the wood?

But what if we could recycle CO2 by using it as a starting material for the carbon-based chemistry that now originates with oil? This would both remove CO2 and lessen our dependence on nonrenewable petrochemistry for all the wonders of modern life.

Progress towards this goal comes from a recent study by a French research group. The authors note that the only significant current use of CO2 in industrial processes is in the synthesis of urea. The main limitation for other types of carbon chemistry is the necessity for extreme reaction conditions and expensive (and often toxic) metal catalysts. The new paper begins to work out these problems with a clever single step reaction scheme catalyzed by organic compounds yielding C-C, C-N, and C-O bonds. This doesn’t immediately usher in a new golden age of chemical feedstock production, but it does crack open a previously closed door that could generate a large number of chemicals directly from CO2.

Still, I wouldn’t give up on reducing CO2 emissions. Multiple strategies are surely needed to solve the complex and interrelated problems of environment and energy.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

First Catalytic Hydrogenation of Urea Derivatives [ChemistryViews]
Durban Dispatch [Grist]
Episode 98: Climate Engineering [Distillations]

Posted In: Policy | Technology

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