Why Solar: Future of hydrocarbon

One atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen make up the basis for methane. The major component in natural gas, that mysterious substance that emanates from the burners in our cook stoves, and furnaces, which in the process of combustion is used to feed civilization, fend off winter temperatures and a provide for the manufacture of fabrics, plastics, steel, and glass.

Historically, natural gas is harvested from gas wells, which coincidentally if you haven’t noticed, are abundant in Alberta. Nova Chemicals is the largest polyethylene producer in Canada, and one of the world’s largest ethylene / polyethylene facilities. Feedstock for Nova Chemicals is supplied by the gas fields of the western sedimentary basin, Canada’s “oil patch”.

The carbon part of the hydrocarbon molecule, blamed for the current state of the atmospheric environs, has instigated a search for new applications for this most common component of life. Too this end, this province is now home to the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre in Calgary.

One of the Centres research teams, finalists in the Carbon XPRIZE competition, the Carbon Electrocatalytic Recycling Toronto, – CERT, has developed an industrial process designed to use renewable energy that will manufacture ethylene from captured CO2.

With rising fuel prices affecting countries that are not so lucky as to be endowed with hydrocarbon reserves, investment in alternate sources of energy now forms the focus of many technological investigations. Combustion of historic fuels, natural gas, oil, coal, has also become a concern for those concerned with the pristine nature of humanities “nest”. The current process is estimated by the International Energy Agency to be responsible for 1.4% of global CO2 emissions.

Capturing CO2 adds very little value to industry where competitiveness is a hallmark of existence. The point of the exercise is to take the by-product, carbon dioxide, deemed to have such serious side effects to the environment as to call for punitive taxes upon the overloaded tax payer, and make it a viable commodity.

The process as explained by CERT’s team lead, Professor Ted Sargent, develops a “reimagined experimental strategy” and a “counterintuitively thin copper based catalyst” to make ethylene, the precursor to plastic. Plastic, as all should know, is the material modern civilization is infused with to the point of dependency.

The challenge in using a copper based catalyst lies in the high pH conditions needed for catalyzing CO2 to ethylene destroys the materials of both the support layer the catalyst is deposited on and the catalyst itself. What the CERT team has done is sandwiched their copper catalyst between carbon and PTFE (Teflon). This setup protects both support structure, and catalyst, from the corrosive actions of the high pH environment. Their development lasts some 15 times as long as previous systems and improves the overall efficiency as well.

This breakthrough verifies that waste CO2 can become a valuable commodity in the petrochemical field. The possibility of closing the carbon loop is now closer to reality; one day we may reap ecological and commercial benefit.

Lorne Oja can be reached at lorne@solartechnical.ca

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