Saturday 25 May 2019

Putting the CO2 back into CVs

Dr Anthea Blackburn, senior scientist for catalyst development at Econic Technologies, says carbon dioxide can help save the environment as a raw material in commercial vehicle component manufacture

Amidst the recent school strikes by children demanding climate action, David Attenborough’s warnings at Davos, and recent reports that the world is set to miss its carbon emission reduction targets, global warming is seldom out of the headlines.

People are all too aware of the scale of the problem, and many have identified the transport sector as one of the leading contributors to the climate challenge. And whilst the sector has taken steps in the right direction in the form of converter technology, hybrid engines and even electric buses, it is understandable why such a view persists.

After all, even after excluding the contribution of the aviation and maritime sectors, transport is responsible for 20 per cent of EU emissions, according to research completed by the European Environment Agency.

That transport operators need to continue their commendable efforts to make the sector greener is clear; precisely how is less so. In fact, the same research revealed that emissions need to fall by around two thirds by 2050, compared with 1990 levels, in order to meet the long-term 60 per cent greenhouse gas emission reduction target.

Making any sector greener, particularly one as energy intensive as transport, is difficult. The average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of a London bus are 1190 g/km, and of a lorry are 550 g/km; complex problems require innovative thinking.

But what if the solution was all around us – literally? What if CO2, the cause of many of the planet’s environmental problems, could be transformed from villain into hero; from pollutant into valuable resource?

For years, unlocking the potential of CO2 as a raw material was the stuff of science fiction. After all, the compound is inherently unreactive, which is why it is such a challenge to find ways of turning it into something that’s useful. Developments in catalytic science, however, have changed things. Science fiction is fast becoming science fact.

Already, we are beginning to see the use of carbon capture technologies in other sectors. One such case is the power station Drax’s use of these techniques to capture one tonne of CO2 a day, whilst other companies have also started to put captured CO2 to use: Carbon Engineering, for example, uses CO2 to create ‘clean’ diesel and jet fuels.

The same is now also true in the transport sector, where it is possible to create polyurethane using a process that replaces some of the oil-based raw materials with captured waste CO2, thereby cutting emissions.

The compound can now be used to create essential components in lorries, vans and buses, including suspensions; ABS and brake cables; resins used in bumpers and shock absorbers; coatings for windscreens; protective rigid foams for engines; and flexible foams used in seat cushioning. The components highlighted in the diagram below on a passenger car are equally applicable to commercial vehicle applications.

The potential effect of applying carbon in this way could be profound, reducing emissions to the tune of up to four million cars’ worth each year. What’s more, the products created from CO2 – all vital components of buses, coaches and vans – perform incredibly effectively, offering improved chemical resistance, enhanced flame retardance, increased abrasion resistance, and durability.

That the issue of climate change must be addressed is beyond doubt, and thanks to developments in carbon capture and utilisation technologies, CO2 could be vital in helping the transport sector pave the way to a greener future.

If the production chain for the transport industry were to take up these techniques, the environmental potential of CO2 could be unlocked and the transport sector’s carbon emissions could be lessened. CO2 has potential; it is time we recognised it.

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