Chemistry as the key to a circular society

Sustainability, renewable energy, recycling… These are all hot topics in our current society. With green solutions, clean energy and recycling programs we aim to tackle today’s challenges. However, we often do not realize the key role of chemistry in all this. This week, a delegation of the Dutch Topsector Chemistry is visiting China. With visits to the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology to sessions with scientific and business partners, they aim to foster more cooperation and discover how we can start the necessary transition towards a circular economy.

Diamonds are not forever

Bert Weckhuysen is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis at Utrecht University, member of the Topsector Chemistry and scientific director of ARC CBBC, the Dutch research institute for new chemical building blocks. He explains that chemistry can play a key role in battling climate change and achieving more circularity. “To chemists, carbon is just a chemical element. A precious ‘form’ of carbon that we know are diamonds. We all know the statement ‘diamonds are forever’, but that’s actually not true. We can transform diamonds into carbon black or carbon dioxide, which shows that we can change the form of chemical elements. Basically, our society is largely built from carbon and even we ourselves are partly made from carbon. The principle of circularity is that everything that’s made from, for example carbon, can also be turned into any form of carbon and back: if a diamond can be converted into carbon dioxide, then surely a chemist can do the reverse and turn carbon dioxide into a ‘diamond’.”

Turning carbon dioxide into fuel

This of course also holds for the burning of fuels. Fuels produce carbon dioxide during burning and chemists now want to develop the technology to do the reverse: convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into fuels. Weckhuysen illustrates that chemistry can enhance air quality and tackle environmental problems with the example of acid rain: “This used to be a serious problem some decades ago. The emission of cars included oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, resulting in acid rain which was harmful to forests in many countries. However, we were able to find catalysts that can remove sulphur and nitrogen from our emissions and our transportation fuels. Now, the obvious next step is to see how we can tackle today’s problems and remove carbon dioxide from the air. We aim to transform it into interesting products. In other words: we’re trying to turn the harmful waste of industry and transportation into products that our society needs, such as fuels. Hopefully, in the long run this will decrease our dependency non-renewable fuels and even enhance the air quality in our cities by reducing smog.”

"We’re trying to turn the harmful waste of industry and transportation into products that our society needs, such as fuels."

Coatings with added functionalities

Besides this focus on carbon circularity and carbon dioxide curtailing, the mission also addresses the development of more sustainable and futureproof coatings. “You can think of your wall paint. We’re already adding properties to this, for instance a color. But wouldn’t it be interesting if we can make coatings with added functionalities? Besides this, we also need to start thinking about making our coatings more sustainable. Currently, many coatings are made out of crude oil. Using alternative materials, such as municipal waste or certified biomass, allows us to make more sustainable coatings,” explains Weckhuysen.

Looking for Chinese partners

Maurice Mourad, Program Manager at ARC CBBC, is interested in the cooperation with Chinese counterparts. “There’s a lot of talent at Chinese universities. Through scientific cooperation between the two countries that are strong in chemical innovation, we can further the research and explore more practical applications.” He also adds the third aim of their visit to China. “We’re currently exploring the topic of chemical recycling of plastics. This is an important area of research to making our society more sustainable. Humankind is producing a lot of plastics; China is even producing one fourth of all the plastics worldwide. We are sure that this topic will also resonate in China and hope to set up a related Sino-Dutch research program. We are actively looking for both academic and industrial partners to develop this topic further.”

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