25 February 2020

Could the orgins of life be the solution to chemical production?

Researchers find a new way to produce chemicals sustainably by replicating natural processes.


Using carbon dioxide as a feedstock for the chemicals industry instead of oil could reduce annual global greenhouse emissions by about 3.5 billion metric tons by 2030.  The high value chemicals which could be produced using this process include surfactants (used in products such as soap, dishwasher liquid and shampoo), coatings, food ingredients, cosmetics, as well as fuels and pharmaceuticals.

By replicating the natural processes suggested to play a role in the development of the origins of life, engineers at the University of Sheffield have found a potentially sustainable route to chemicals production, reducing greenhouse gases and carbon emissions.

There are multiple theories as to how and where life started. Many scientists researching the origins of life believe that the answer lies deep under the Earth’s seas. On the seabed, there are vents from which heated mineral-rich water and CO₂ (carbon dioxide) gas flow, due to the high temperatures and pressure. When this water and gas combination comes into contact with minerals from the planet’s crust, the chemical reaction forms simple organic compounds which can subsequently transform into more complex species.

Sustainability and the reduction of carbon emissions is a primary concern of government, industry and the public. Instead of using oil from the ground as feedstock for the chemicals industry, there is a push to try to use new carbon capture technologies to replace fossil fuels. However, the main challenge is that using CO₂ as feedstock requires it to be mixed with hydrogen, which is very energy intensive to make and often comes from fossil reserves.

It has been estimated that using carbon dioxide as a chemical feedstock instead of oil would reduce annual global greenhouse emissions by about 3.5 billion metric tons by 2030.*

In the paper published in ChemSusChem journal, Dr James McGregor and his team from the University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, have found for the first time that we can modify the natural process to react CO₂ with water - rather than using hydrogen - in order to tailor the reaction to produce specific desirable high value chemicals. This is achieved through careful selection of an appropriate solid catalyst.

Dr McGregor said: “What this research has done is to look at a simple reaction, using just water and CO₂, applying intelligent engineering to look at the natural process happening on the seabed, then adapting that process into something that makes industrially useful chemicals.

“These chemicals can then go on to be used in everyday things, including surfactants (used in end consumer products such as soap, dishwasher liquid and shampoo), coatings, food ingredients, cosmetics, as well as fuels and pharmaceuticals.”

It is still a proof of concept at this stage but provides the first step along the lines of understanding how we might find ways to turn CO₂ into useful chemical products without having to use hydrogen or oil as the feedstock for industry.

Dr McGregor continued: “In the future, we’re going to be capturing lots more CO₂ from industrial sources, which means there should be a readily available, low cost carbon source. If we can use this effectively through the processes demonstrated in our research, it would support these activities to reduce our carbon emissions and provide a fossil-free route to a range of valuable chemical products.”

There are plans to develop this research further to go beyond proof of concept and start testing the processes with industry.


* https://www.pnas.org/content/116/23/11187 ‘Climate change mitigation potential of carbon capture and utilisation in the chemical industry’

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