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How researchers remade ‘the world’s most widely used petrochemical’ – without using fossil fuels

Summary

Researchers at the University of Toronto are creating a sustainable alternative to the petrochemical ethylene, which is widely used in consumer products. The new process uses renewable electricity and splits water and carbon dioxide to make hydrocarbons such as ethylene. It consumes three tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of ethylene produced, avoiding up to five tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. A team of engineers, electrochemists and materials experts have scaled up the process and now have funding to demonstrate direct air capture to ethylene. The University of Toronto is encouraging collaboration between multiple faculties and has launched the Climate Positive Energy Initiative to develop clean energy solutions. Ultimately, this technology has potential to avoid gigatonnes of emissions and decarbonise the entire manufacturing and energy system.

Q&As

What is ethylene and what products does it go into?
Ethylene is a petrochemical that is used in shampoo, antifreeze, food packaging, electronics, textiles, and building materials.

How does CERT Systems make ethylene without fossil fuels?
CERT Systems makes ethylene using a process called CO2 electrolysis that works at ambient temperatures and the only energy input is renewable electricity. Copper forms the basis of a catalyst that splits water and carbon dioxide, then converts them into hydrocarbons such as ethylene.

What are the benefits of CERT Systems' method of creating ethylene?
The benefits of CERT Systems' method of creating ethylene include no harmful emissions, the ability to use carbon dioxide as a raw material, and avoiding up to five tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every tonne of ethylene produced.

What challenges does CERT Systems face in scaling up production of ethylene?
The challenges CERT Systems face in scaling up production of ethylene include affordability and the need for diverse thinking to determine whether certain climate tech will be feasible and accepted by society.

What other chemicals can be made using the CERT Systems method of using carbon dioxide?
Other chemicals that can be made using the CERT Systems method of using carbon dioxide include hydrocarbons such as ethylene, as well as other useful building block chemicals.

AI Comments

👍 It's amazing how the team at the University of Toronto has been able to create an ethylene alternative that uses renewable energy and no carbon dioxide emissions. This has the potential to make a huge difference in the fight against climate change.

👎 It's concerning that the low price point of conventional ethylene presents a barrier to new technologies that could help reduce carbon emissions. This could make it difficult to make the technology commercially viable.

AI Discussion

Me: It's about how researchers at the University of Toronto are creating a sustainable alternative to the petrochemical ethylene, which is used in many products and is highly carbon-intensive. They've developed a process called CO2 electrolysis that uses renewable electricity and captures carbon dioxide from the air or industrial sources, eliminating the need for fossil fuels.

Friend: That's amazing! It's great to see research like this that has the potential to reduce carbon emissions.

Me: Absolutely. It's amazing that they've been able to develop a process that can provide a sustainable alternative to the conventional ethylene production process. It could have a huge impact on the manufacturing and energy systems, and hopefully it can be scaled up to reduce emissions significantly.

Action items

Technical terms

Petrochemical
A chemical derived from petroleum or natural gas.
Ethylene
A colorless, flammable gas with a sweet odor and taste. It is the simplest alkene (a hydrocarbon with carbon-carbon double bonds).
Polyethylene
A thermoplastic polymer made from the monomer ethylene. It is the most common plastic in the world.
CO2 electrolysis
A process in which carbon dioxide is split into its constituent elements, carbon and oxygen, using electricity.
Catalyst
A substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed in the process.
Hydrocarbons
Organic compounds composed of hydrogen and carbon atoms.
Direct air capture
A process in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored for later use.
Breakthrough Energy Innovator Fellows
A program funded by the Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Foundation that provides funding to innovators working on clean energy solutions.
Modular
A system or structure composed of multiple parts that can be connected and disconnected.
Feasible
Capable of being accomplished or brought about.
Interdisciplinary
Involving two or more academic disciplines.

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