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Bouwman catalyst.jpg

Anyone who suggests that we might fix the atmospheric carbon problem just by recycling carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into, say, plastic, probably hasn’t run the numbers: the 3% human contribution to annual global carbon dioxide emissions is 23 billion metric tons, whereas annual global plastics production amounts to only 91 million metric tons. Even if the necessary technology were practical, in other words, the entire annual global human plastics demand would consume less than 1% of the entire annual global human carbon dioxide surplus.

Still, every little bit helps, and this copper-based catalyst recently developed by Elisabeth Bouwman and co-workers at Leiden University in the Netherlands represents a vast improvement over previous atmospheric carbon-dioxide-fixing processes. Most of these are poisoned by oxygen, which means that you can’t just pump air into the reactor without removing the oxygen first. Bouwman’s catalyst, however, reacts with carbon dioxide but not oxygen, producing oxalate, which is a useful feedstock for the manufacture of methyl glycolate and other organic compounds. And while Bouwman’s material is not a “true” catalyst in that it actually forms a compound with carbon dioxide and has to be regenerated in a second reaction, the regeneration step can be done electrochemically with remarkably little energy.

Here’s the abstract of Bouwman’s recent paper in Science, and here’s an audio interview with Bouwman from the Science podcast.

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.



  1. Al says:

    It is sort of amazing how much work we can expend trying to discover trees.

  2. kevin says:

    I find it more amazing that these numbers are spewed as fact, when they aren’t. If you don’t know the truth, don’t post about garbage like this.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Are you in possession of better information? Why not share it?

      1. eman says:

        Given that you are the author of the article it falls on you to provide references for your figures rather than put the responsibility on those that question them. Or did you just make them up?

        1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

          There are really only two hard data points involved in my analysis: The total weight of global annual anthropogenic CO2 and the total weight of global annual plastics production. The rest is simple math. The two figures are common knowledge among chemists and I produced them from memory, but if you insist on references…

          For annual anthropogenic CO2, see, e.g.:

          Marland, G., Boden, T.A., and Andres, R.J., 2006, Global, Regional, and National Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions, In Trends: A Compendium of data on global change, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A.

          Which actually gives a higher figure of 27 billion metric tons of annual anthropogenic CO2.

          For annual plastics production, see, e.g.

          Stevens, Eugene S., Green plastics: an introduction to the new science of biodegradable plastics, Princeton University Press, 2002 (p. 6)

          1. eman says:

            Honestly I just thought that the way to answer Kevin’s question was by stating where you got the data, as you have now done. Saying “do you have better info?” is uninformative and may have led some to question where you got your numbers. Now, if he wants to dispute your numbers he has a point of reference and can do so – as long as he has valid references as well.

            Thanks for responding to the comments. Is this a policy of contributors to MAKE or just you?

          2. Sean Michael Ragan says:

            Our editorial policy calls for each of us to monitor comments on our posts and respond when it’s practical and productive to do so. I try to make an effort to respond whenever I can, but with so many posts going up it can get a bit overwhelming. That said, I appreciate a bit of intelligent debate as much as anyone. =]

  3. Techskeptic says:

    Who cares if the market for plastic is only 91 million metric tons? We have been expending huge resources trying to figure out carbon capture and none of the methods provide a useful product. Plastic would be a great way to store carbon (except you’ll also need a lot of hydrogen). That said I suspect the viabilty of this method will come with it’s own set of challenges such as feedstock supply for the compound.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      The point is that if you wanted to depend on polymerization of atmospheric CO2 to scrub anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere you’d have to make more than 100 times more plastic every year than we already use. That would be 8 billion metric tons of plastic each year that we don’t need, and that, presumably, would just sit around.

      1. Bob D says:

        Plastic houses, anyone? Bueller?

      2. Tim says:

        1. You’re assuming plastic demand stays constant.

        2. You’re assuming polymerization of CO2 needs to solve 100% of the problem.

        3. You’re not considering the savings in petroleum products created by making polymers from CO2 instead. (I’m not sure of the CO2 pollution created by this process in energy creation when compared to the CO2 pollution created by the standard petroleum-based product, just suggesting it could reduce pollution further than just what is pulled out of the atmosphere.)

        As a whole though, I like to save articles like this as examples of the often overlooked fact that we humans have the intellectual capabilities to solve our problems through invention and analysis. Before the polio vaccine, it was easy to believe that large populations would continue to die from polio forever. Until we have a cure for cancer, it’s easy to believe that large populations will continue to die from cancer forever. And, until we see more solutions like this being developed, it’s easy to believe climate change will continue to cause problems forever.

        1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

          Well, as to point 1, think of it this way: Human beings have been producing synthetic polymers on an industrial scale for less than 100 years. So to be on par with annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions, we’d have to start producing more plastic, every year, than has to date been produced in the entire history of the human race. Certainly plastics demand is going to increase, but even if it were to only double in the next year–which, keep in mind, would require a complete redoubling of the current worldwide plastics industry–you’re still talking less than 2% of annual anthropogenic CO2.

          As to point 2, I did say “just” by turning CO2 into plastics. I’m not saying it can’t make a dent–indeed, I said “every little bit helps”–but, again, for the contribution to be very significant production of plastics would have to increase by at least an order of magnitude.

          And I feel obliged to make the point that we’ve got too much waste plastic piling up as it is. Imagine what the beaches would look like if we were making even twice as much synthetic polymer every year, let alone ten times as much…

  4. santi says:

    heres a novel idea . CO2 is used by plants for photosysnthes and the plant puts out oxygen that we breath. So why is CO2 touted as a poisonous gas. Remmember no CO2 no plants. Dumb ass global change people just believe what people tell you instead of finding out yourself / what is the truth.

    1. Wilson! says:

      1) Where’s the novel idea? I’m not seeing it.
      2) That’s pretty funny, labeling other people “dumb ass” when you misspell “photosynthesis” and “remember,” use the noun “breath” where you should use the verb “breathe,” and fail to make a salient point. (Please post a reply if you need someone to define “salient” for you)

      Well played. I’m sure you would have gained many converts to your cause, if only someone could figure out what that might be.

  5. JNT8686 says:

    setting the global warming debate aside, if plastic were significantly cheaper, it would be very good for everybody. most people think of plastic as being a cheap material but it is not. as a product designer i know all about the lengths that we go to minimize the amount of plastic used in a product. if you take apart any plastic object around you, you will see that the actual plastic shell is only a few millimeters thick, but it is strengthened and stiffened by all kinds of internal ribs and bosses. if plastic were significantly more abundant, we would be free to design products with much thicker plastic. products would be exponentially stronger, and have a more high quality feel to them.

    1. Martin H. says:

      As a product designer you can’t know, that abundance or its lack is not the reason for thin an light parts. Plastic is a cheap material compared to possible replacements. Not the price or availability but the manufacturing process drives you to your described design. More material means more cooling time (injection moulding) for every part means less parts per machine/hour/operator means less profit.