Scientists from the Stanford University have developed renewable plastic from carbon dioxide and plant material. They combined carbonate with CO2 and furoic acid to produce polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), the more environmentally efficient alternative of the plastic ingredient polyester.

The study published online in the journal Nature on March 9 states that this new approach can decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford, claims that this is a good low-carbon alternative component to plastic bottles, electronics, fabrics and other products made from petroleum, which harms the environment.

“Our goal is to replace petroleum-derived products with plastic made from CO2,” said Kanan. “If you could do that without using a lot of non-renewable energy, you could dramatically lower the carbon footprint of the plastics industry,” he said.

Apparently, many products are produced from polyester, also called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). However, manufacturing only one tonne of this creates four tonnes of carbon dioxide that worsens global warming.

The research team focused on polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), which is composed of ethylene glycol and a compound called 2-5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA). PEF seals out oxygen, a trait beneficial for bottling applications.

Stanford chemistry graduate student Aanindeeta Banerjee and Assistant Professor Matthew Kanan have developed a novel way to make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide and ordinary plants. Photo by Mark Shwartz/Stanford University

Stanford chemistry graduate student Aanindeeta Banerjee and Assistant Professor Matthew Kanan have developed a novel way to make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide and ordinary plants. Photo by
Mark Shwartz/Stanford University

Still, producing the components for PEF is expensive. Other experts from the Dutch firm Avantium have figured out that converting fructose from corn syrup into FDCA solves this problem but growing corn needs an extensive use of land, energy, money and water.

“Using fructose is problematic, because fructose production has a substantial carbon footprint, and, ultimately, you’ll be competing with food production,” Kanan notes. “It would be much better to make FDCA from inedible biomass, like grasses or waste material left over after harvest.”

Initially, they replaced fructose with furfural, a compound from inedible plant material. Even so, they realised making FDCA out of furfural and CO2 needs the use of harmful and expensive chemicals.

Therefore, the team used carbonate instead. They combined carbonate with CO2 and furoic acid, a derivative of furfural. After heating the mixture to 200 degrees Celsius for five hours, 89 percent has been converted to FDCA, which is then used for PEF.

The team says products made of PEF are recyclable and can be burned into CO2 that will be taken by plants, which can be used to make more PEF. Nevertheless, Kanan says that this finding is just the first step to realising the full benefits of using PEF. The researchers are currently investigating how to create renewable products from hydrogen and CO2.