RENEWABLE AND ADVANCED MATERIALS AS A POWERFUL TOOL TO MITIGATE CLIMATE CHANGE
Mateus Schreiner Garcez Lopes, Global R&D Manager of Innovation of Renewable Technologies, Braskem
We have always lived in a world full of uncertainties and concerns, however, current global interconnectivity also implies higher systemic risks linked to our failure to mitigate consequences of economic, environmental and technological actions.
According to the World Economic Forum, extreme weather events, natural disasters and failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change are listed within the top five major global risks in terms of likelihood and impact. . Economic growth and technological advances have lifted millions of people out of poverty, raised living standards and erased boundaries between countries and businesses through innovations in agriculture, communication and transportation. However, these innovations may be undermining our own foundations through the negative side effects on ecosystems, biodiversity and climate. Our economic growth model is linked to energy consumption, which is directly related to increased water consumption, waste production, greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and other environmental burdens. In fact, historically for every one per cent increase in GDP, resource usage has risen on average by 0.4 percent . In developing countries, growing population and increases in living standards will still be the main drivers of rising CO2 emissions and fossil fuel usage in the decades to come. Economic development, as we know it, environmental sustainability and resource scarcity are on a collision course. In order to change this dramatic equation, the systemic nature of our most significant global risks calls for both technical innovations and alternative business models that can sustain economic growth without the current environmental drawbacks .
Even though science tells us that our climate is already changing and that we should expect extreme weather events (such as storms, floods and heat waves) to become more frequent and intense , the GHG emissions grew at a faster rate over the decade from 2000 to 2010 than they did over the previous three decades. Furthermore, IPCC reports that in order to achieve the stated goal of a maximum 2 degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures, it will be necessary to reduce GHG emissions in 2050 by 40 to 70 per cent from 2010 levels.
By the end of the century, to achieve the same target, GHG emissions will need to be at zero, or possibly, it will be required to remove CO2 from the atmosphere [IPCC 2013]. However, according the forecast of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) emissions from Mckinsey Energy Insights , emissions of CO2e will only plateau in 2030 and remain for from a 2 degrees Celsius maximum increase pathway (Figure 1). It´s forecasted that, even incorporating the impact of electric cars and rapid adoption of solar and wind power (from 2015-2050, more than 80 per cent of global power generation capacity additions will be solar and wind power), our level of CO2e emissions will be double of the target CO2e level consistent with a 2 degrees Celsius long-term pathway (Figure 1).
The shortfall in CO2 emission reduction indicates that new and disruptive technologies will be required for society’s decarbonization in order to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. So-called “carbon capture” technologies could be leveraged to sequester carbon, dramatically reducing atmospheric GHG content and thus mitigating global climate change.
The most familiar concept for carbon capture is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which is a family of technologies and techniques that enable the capture of CO2 from fuel combustion or industrial processes, the transport of CO2 via ships or pipelines, and its storage underground in depleted oil and gas fields and deep saline formations . The goal of CCS is to reduce the GHG emissions from fossil fuels, not the reduction of the existing GHG concentration on the atmosphere. The estimated cost of CCS is about US$71 per tonne for coal-fired plants, around US$81 for natural-gas plants, and for cement and steel, two of the biggest industrial emitters, closer to US$100 per tonne . Coupling CCS with the use of renewable biomass is one of the few carbon abatement technologies that can be used in a ‘’carbon-negative’’ mode – actually taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. However, decreasing the cost of CO2 capture and building a safe CO2 transport and storage infrastructure is still critical to unlocking largescale CCS deployment [6,8].
We propose a different approach to reach a negative carbon footprint, which we call Carbon Capture and Polymerization (CCP). In this approach, the CO2 is sequestered from the atmosphere by plants using photosynthesis, converting the CO2 into lignocellulose, starch and sugars (e.g. sucrose) depending on the crop. The first-generation sugar (sugars and starch) can be easily accessed while the lignocellulose needs to be deconstructed to access the non-edible second-generation sugars (glucose and xylose) which are present in the hemicellulose and cellulose. Those sugars can be converted to polymers thought a combination of technologies (e.g. biotechnology, catalysis and polymer chemistry) to store the CO2 captured by plants. These polymers can be used in a variety of applications across industries such as automotive, construction and packaging. In order to fix CO2 for the long term the polymers need to be used in durable goods, such as pipe in residential buildings, or be recyclable if it is used in disposable applications, such as food packaging.
We believe that Carbon Capture and Polymerization to produce renewable and advanced materials coupled with strong recycling chains should be one of the pillars for governments to achieve their COP21 commitments while simultaneously paving the way for a new technological revolution.
By using renewable sources to produce three common thermoplastics – polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – whose aggregated consumption should reach 0.4 billion tonnes in 2030 , there is the potential to fix approximately 1.3 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions equivalent (CO2e) per year and to reduce the emissions of approximately 0.8 gigatonnes of CO2e in 2030
Braskem has been fostering the CCP concept for the last 10 years with green polyethylene (Green PE). The process begins with fixing CO2 via sugarcane in the form of sucrose. The sucrose is then converted into ethanol by fermentation in sugar mills, ethylene is then produced from the ethanol by catalytic dehydration at the Braskem Green Ethylene plant in south Brazil. Finally, the green ethylene is polymerized into Green PE at the same site, utilizing the integrated polymerization plants. The Green PE properties are tailored according to the end-use needs of the client. The integrated process results in a capture of 3.09 tonnes of CO2e (from cradle to factory gate) per tonne of Green PE produced. This compares favorably with the petrochemical based process for PE which results in an emission of 1.83 tonnes of CO2e per tonne of PE produced . As an example, a single green ethylene plant with a capacity of 200,000 tonnes per year can fix and avoid emissions of approximately 1 million tonnes of CO2 yearly. Braskem has shown that it is possible to produce high quality products, create jobs, and nourish technological development while reducing CO2 emissions. Furthermore, our Green PE has helped several clients to reduce their product’s carbon footprint and to achieve their corporate goals related to CO2 emissions. Extending this same concept of Carbon Capture and Polymerization, Braskem has started an ambitious programme to develop breakthrough technologies for the production of other renewable polymers combining top-level competencies in biotechnology, heterogeneous catalysis, and polymer science. This year Braskem announced the construction of a demonstration plant for the conversion of sugar to ethylene glycol – a feedstock of PET – in partnership with the Danish company Haldor Topsoe. Next year, we will be fixing CO2 in form of ethylene glycol, an important raw material of PET, and shipping it to our clients, who will ultimately test it in many applications such as beverage bottles, food packaging, textiles and others.
The replacement of current fossil-based materials should just be the beginning. Renewable chemistry has great potential to create sustainable, novel and advanced materials by leveraging the powerful combination of new tools in biotechnology, heterogeneous catalysis, material science and artificial intelligence. In the last decades, the R&D costs in biotechnology have decreased exponentially, especially in DNA sequencing and synthesis, while new tools for metabolic engineering such as CRISPR/Cas9, and advances on protein engineering to expand our enzymatic reactions repertoire are increasing our power to use fermentation-based technologies to produce novel monomers. Complementing the advances in biotechnology, new tools to accelerate the development cycle in material science that combine automation, artificial intelligence and quantum computing are creating momentum for novel and advanced materials.
We want to create new and better materials for all industries utilizing these recent developments. For example, we could substitute cement, metals and other CO2 and energy-intensive materials with renewable and carbon fixing polymers. We have been researching renewable chemicals in our Research Center for Renewable Chemicals (RC)2 in Campinas (Brazil) and we intend to boost our capabilities with the recently announced expansion of our R&D capabilities in Boston (USA). The new expansion is focused on bridging the gap between biotechnology and advanced materials. We believe that renewable chemistry will enable new materials that will not only have a direct impact in CO2 emission but will also have a significant role in reducing the footprint of several industries (Figure 2) by:
1. Decreasing food waste through better packaging. Novel material solutions can protect food during transportation and increase shelf life, thus reducing food waste and consequently energy waste and CO2 emissions, especially if we consider the utilization of second generation sugars.
2. Facilitating the ongoing transportation revolution of electric cars and autonomous vehicles. Glass and metal are still the dominant materials in exterior vehicle design and fossil-based polymers are commonly used for interiors. By promoting more uses of drop-in bio-based polymers such as the green polyethylene, bio-PET, polycarbonates, and the development of new lightweight and resistant renewable polymers, the weight of electric cars could be considerably reduced, leading to better performance, more battery range and less energy consumption.
3. Reducing carbon impact of the construction industry and turning buildings into CO2 sinks. For example, the concrete/cement industry is one important emitter of CO2 worldwide (about 5 per cent). Cement manufacture contributes GHG both directly through the thermal decomposition of calcium carbonate producing lime and CO2, and through the intense use of energy, particularly from the combustion of fossil fuels. Novel renewable materials can transform buildings into large-scale carbon sinks while offering lightweight, smart and resistant materials to facilitate creative freedom enabling new designs and architecture.
4. Supporting the progress of under-developed areas. In general, fermentation based processes intrinsically benefit from being smaller scale plants that are located closer to or inside agricultural areas that would supply the raw materials. Therefore, the expansion of bio-based chemicals may lead to the development of new decentralized industrial chains in current rural areas and may serve as the basis of stronger economies where the majority of the world’s poor and hungry live. 
With the right incentives and timing, solutions based on renewable chemistry and polymers could create a new eco-industrial architecture addressing major global challenges. The adoption of long-term and reliable policies is required to push the bioeconomy forward and to create an investment scenario that reflects both our current societal challenges and the long-term externalities caused by the use of oil. Braskem has advocated in different forums for actions towards climate change and carbon pricing policies. A highlight among these participations is the Climate Summit, held last year in New York, in which the World Bank and the Global Compact proposed the adoption of carbon pricing mechanisms. However, making smart use of the revenues generated by carbon pricing is just as important as the price of carbon itself . A CO2 pricing policy that promotes the investment of the carbon revenues into R&D and industrial deployment of renewable technologies in order to generate emissions reductions appears to offer a powerful combination of improved economic dynamics toward sustainability. For example, if there were a carbon pricing policy, the extra revenue could be used to close any gap in financial investment requirements for the deployment of renewable technologies caused by the current low oil and commodity chemical prices, therefore boosting bio-based competitiveness and accelerating the transition to a biobased economy .
Innovation in renewable technologies can bridge the gap between exponential growth of knowledge and the creation of a new sustainable value chain for a broad range of economic sectors. We believe that renewable and advanced materials can increase the sustainability of different industries such as food, energy, transportation and construction becoming a powerful tool for governments to achieve the goals established in the COP21 agreement.
About the Author
Mateus Schreiner Garcez Lopes serves as Global Manager of Innovation in Renewable Technologies at Braskem. Previously, he worked at the Natural Energy Institute (USA) and the Institute of Biotechnology from UNAM (Mexico). He has published dozens of international articles, has issued patents on renewable technologies. Mr Lopes is a former member of the Industrial Advisory Board for NSF Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), a Board Member of the Brazilian Association of Industrial Biotechnology, the founder of the first synthetic biology online community in Brazil (synbiobrasil) and a mentor at the first synthetic biology accelerator in the USA Indie.Bio. Mr Lopes holds a PhD from the University of Sao Paulo and Friedrich-Alexander-Universität in Germany, and has an MBA in Agribusiness.
As shown in Figure 1, the total reduction of 2.1 gigatonnes of CO2e via CCP can have a significant positive impact on the ability of countries to achieve their sustainability goals. Considering the magnitudes involved, Braskem is not alone in this vision. Companies like IKEA and Lego have announced their vision to substitute all fossil-based materials for more sustainable ones by 2030 [10, 11]. Additionally, in order to achieve the objectives agreed upon at COP21, countries are starting to set mandates for the usage of renewables materials – for example, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in Japan is currently setting a mandate for the consumption of 2 million tonnes of renewable plastics per year by 2030 .
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