Sustainable Chemistry driving the Circular Economy: Using waste gas from steel for plastics

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A new project Carbon4PUR will bring together 14 partners from seven countries to develop and demonstrate the sustainable use of waste carbon dioxide (CO2) as an alternative feedstock for chemical processes. This Horizon 2020 project is funded through SPIRE, the European Public-Private Partnership dedicated to innovation in resource and energy efficiency driven by the process industries.

The project consortium is led by materials manufacturer Covestro and will receive funding of €8 million over three years with its industrial partners also contributing. The full project title for Carbon4PUR is ‘Turning industrial waste gases (mixed CO/CO2 streams) into intermediates for polyurethane plastics for rigid foams/building insulation and coatings’. The project kicked off on 16 October with a meeting in Brussels.

The use of carbon dioxide and other waste gases as a new source of raw materials is increasingly a topic of interest in Europe and both SusChem and SPIRE have developed calls in this area. Carbon4PUR will now investigate how flue gas from the steel industry can be used to produce plastics in a particularly efficient and sustainable way replacing conventional carbon input from fossil fuel sources.

“Together, we are on the path to a crucial innovation: waste gas mixtures from the steel industry can provide carbon for chemical processes and ultimately be used to produce insulation materials and coatings,” explained Dr. Markus Steilemann, the Covestro Board Member responsible for Innovation, Marketing and Sales and recently elected Chairman of the SusChem board. “This helps us to broaden our resource base and to reduce the climate footprint for the entire value chain. At the same time, we are joining our forces by partnering with industrial and academic partners throughout Europe.”

The new project introduces an unprecedented cooperation extending from the waste gas sources to manufacturers of plastic. The Carbon4PUR project is supported by the European Union through the SPIRE Public-Private Partnership.

The funding for Carbon4PUR was granted under SPIRE Horizon 2020 call SPIRE08-2017 ‘Utilisation of CO2’ which also funded two other projects ICO2CHEM (From industrial CO2 streams to added value Fischer-Tropsch chemicals) and RECODE (Recycling carbon dioxide in the cement industry to produce added-value additives: a step towards a CO2 circular economy).

Specifically, the Carbon4PUR project aims to use mixtures of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which are generated during steel production, to produce polyols – key components of polyurethane-based insulating materials and coatings that are otherwise obtained from crude oil.

The process being developed is special because it eliminates the resource intensive step of separating the waste gas into its different components. Instead, the gas mixture will be subjected to a chemocatalytic process and converted directly into building blocks and intermediates for polyurethanes. This can reduce the carbon footprint of the process by 20 to 60 %.

Ideal start

The ideal starting conditions for the industrial pilot project already exist: in the southern French town of Fos-sur-Mer, an ArcelorMittal steel factory and a Covestro production facility are close neighbours. Other consortium members include academic and institutional partners such as RWTH Aachen University, TU Berlin, Dechema, Imperial College London, the universities of Gent and Leiden, the French Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives, South Pole Carbon Asset Management, Grand Port Maritime de Marseille and PNO Innovatieadvies.

From southern France, Covestro could then deliver its innovative intermediate products to additional industrial partners, such as Recticel, a Belgium-based polyurethane foam manufacturer, and Megara Resins, a Greek supplier to the coatings industry.

Last year, Covestro began using carbon dioxide to produce a precursor for soft polyurethane foam, which is designed for use in upholstered furniture and mattresses. Meanwhile, the company is researching additional areas of application for CO2-based raw materials.