March 07, 2024

WHITEPAPER DOWNLOAD: Locking Carbon in a Plastic Prison: Sequestering CO2 In Polymers

NexantECA - Locking Carbon in a Plastic Prison: Sequestering CO2 In Polymers

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DOWNLOAD: Locking Carbon in a Plastic Prison: Sequestering CO2 In Polymers 



To effectively mitigate the worst-case scenario and outcome from the inherent risks of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of ~1.5 degrees Celsius highlighted the importance of reaching “Net-Zero” emissions by 2050.  Globally, with emphasis on greenhouse gases (GHG), around 40 billion tons of carbon emissions (in the molecular form of carbon dioxide or CO2) are estimated to be released into the atmosphere every year.  It has become increasingly clear that the effort to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius has not succeeded.   Governments, industry, and consumers are all demanding definitive action.  As ambitious targets and goals have been set, the petrochemical industry is currently at an “all hands-on deck” moment to try to meet these goals in a timely manner.  It will take an “all of the above” approach to achieve.   Carbon capture, carbon utilization and storage, electric heating, alternative technologies, power to liquids (PTL), and feedstock switching (to biofeedstocks) will all be parts of the energy and chemicals low carbon intensity future.   

Carbon Capture: Industry’s Favorite Solution 

Commercially proven carbon capture processes are currently bolt-on solutions for decarbonizing existing heavy polluting applications, whereas direct air capture is a way of getting carbon credits to cancel out the applications that cannot be easily decarbonized—the two can help get stakeholders to target net zero emissions without changing the fundamental business model that drastically.  Interest remains high in CO2 capture for a few well joined premises: 

We are limited by available renewable and sustainable materials and technologies: Simply put, there are not enough renewable feedstocks, renewable power, or renewable technologies available between now and 2050 to eliminate the use of fossil fuels.  Even at very impressive industry growth rates—more than any previous industrial revolution—we will still likely fall short.  Many will also need a way to offset otherwise uncapturable or ineliminable emissions; 

Industry is expecting emissions regulation—and support for emission reduction technologies: Almost all major global multinational energy and chemical companies have publicly stated not only that they expect a carbon tax, cap and trade, and/or some other credit system to help curb emissions in major markets, but that they also support these efforts; 

Consequences are stacking for inaction: It is now widely accepted that the global community will most likely not achieve the target of 1.5 degrees (or already has)—more powerful storms, raging fires, rising sea levels, droughts, and other disruptions to global food, chemical, and energy industries are rising with the mean temperature of the planet. 

A key piece of the puzzle remains; what is the end-use application for the captured carbon?  Capturing carbon is the easier hurdle.  Figuring out what to do with carbon is a larger challenge. 

Geological Sequestration: On Shaky Ground 

Current alternatives to existing industrial demand include geological sequestration as well as other utilization.   Geological sequestration has not had the best track record recently due to technical barriers and challenges — with the Chevron’s Gorgon project only storing 1.6 million tons per year—well under half of the 4 million tons per year capacity, blaming recent some problems on water availability and seismic activity among other issues1  There are also other inherent hurdles and challenges related to factors such as subsurface porosity and permeability of CO2.  Though not all projects have had such problems, two projects in Norway, Sleipner and Snøhvit, have also been operating since 1996 and 2008 respectively. Between Sleipner and Snøhvit, an average of 1.8 million metric tonnes per year of CO2 are disposed of in this manner, accumulating 22 million tonnes in storage so far.  To put this in perspective, the 3.4 million tons being stored annually in these two projects represents less than 0.01% of annual global emissions.  

What is the Opportunity for Plastics? They are Carbon Rich and Do not Readily Degrade 

Plastics represent a unique and enticing opportunity since they are carbon rich.  Due to the stoichiometry, for every carbon atom in the molecule, roughly 3.6 times this amount of CO2 equivalents are stored—and many plastics are mostly carbon, as high as 86 percent carbon—even many molecules with heteroatoms can still store more carbon than CO2 can on a ton per ton basis.  Several plastics can be produced from CO2 —particularly with the high interest in eMethanol, and renewable ammonia which are key intermediates for potential polymer and monomer production.  Unlike geological sequestration, or even burying of biomass (whether wood or biochar), these processes produce an actual physical product that can be sold—not relying solely on renewable credits’ sales or government funding along with subsidies to operate.  This makes for a more robust business model, as the physical product can be sold at a premium—mitigating the potential risk of credit price fluctuations and government administration changes. 

Key Takeaways 

Three key takeaways from NexantECA’s evaluation and assessment of this market space: 

  • Interest is very high in the carbon capture – both industrial carbon capture and direct air capture 
  • Options for CO2 storage present potential problems -- geological sequestration is slow going with few successes outside of EOR 
  • Polymers represent a most likely large opportunity for CO2 storage - key questions will remain around cost, actual carbon intensity (or negativity), and availability  


The Author...

Steven Slome - Biorenewable Insights Manager


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Key NexantECA Insights Reports in the Carbon Capture and Storage Market Space  

NexantECA consultants and advisors have been consistently active in evaluating technoeconomics, carbon intensity, and market developments in the carbon capture and storage market space, particularly as it pertains to CO2 capture technologies and processes as well as sequestration, storage, and end-use applications.  In addition to significant custom-tailored consulting and advisory work in this area, NexantECA has also published the specific related reports that may be of interest for various stakeholders: 


Technology and Costs 


Markets and Profitability 


Special Reports 




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