The German Future Prize 2019 was awarded in Berlin on 27 November.
Among the last three teams in the final was a group of researchers, including Prof. Walter Leitner, Director at the MPI for Chemical Energy Conversion.
In the end, another team ("Process Mining") from Munich won, but Leitner was still overwhelmed by the recognition for their own project "CO2 - a raw material for sustainable plastics" by the expert jury and the Federal President of Germany.
The jury congratulated the team led by Prof. Walter Leitner (MPI CEC, RWTH Aachen University), Dr. Christoph Gürtler and Dr. Berit Stange (both Covestro Deutschland AG) for their innovative and impressive solution to a problem that is currently of particular concern to society.
Scientists at MPI CEC, RWTH Aachen University and Covestro have succeeded in developing a promising technology that turns carbon dioxide (CO2) into plastics.
The team is particularly successful due to the close cooperation of academic and industrial research. Prof. Walter Leitner, Dr. Christoph Gürtler and Dr. Berit Stange bring basic and applied research together and thus make the leap from the laboratory to the market.
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier pointed out: "Whoever is nominated here has won". Accordingly, Prof. Leitner and his colleagues were and are extremely grateful for the opportunity to present their project to the public. "Together with colleagues from the MPG, the RWTH and Covestro, we are celebrating a great event and the overwhelming recognition we received today for our research and its industrial implementation," said Leitner immediately after the award ceremony.
Innovative research: from greenhouse gases to plastics
In our everyday lives and in the chemical industry, carbon is an indispensable component of many products. Until now, carbon has mostly been extracted from crude oil, natural gas or coal. Prof. Leitner and his team have succeeded in developing a process that makes it possible to use carbon from carbon dioxide molecules. In this way, CO2 can be used as a raw material for sustainable and high-quality plastics and can be used in numerous everyday products.
The process is made possible by a complex catalytic process.
CO2 is a very inert molecule and is very difficult to form chemical compounds with. However, the team has succeeded in developing a catalyst that induces the reaction partners to form a compound by lowering the activation energy for the conversion and steering it in the desired direction. This makes the reaction economical and efficient.
The researchers used CO2 to produce polyol, which was previously produced primarily from crude oil and can be used as a starting material for versatile plastics. Polyol is further processed into polyurethanes, a class of plastics used in numerous products.
The worldwide annual demand for polyol and polyurethane exceeds several million tons, so that replacing crude oil with CO2 can save many tons of fossil raw materials and a corresponding amount of CO2 emissions every year.
Up to 5,000 of polyol can already be produced annually in a Covestro AG pilot plant. The first products with materials containing CO2, such as mattresses, are already on the market, and more and more everyday products can be made from carbon dioxide using plastics. The market potential for innovation and corresponding products is therefore immense. The aim of the researchers is to provide industry with a platform technology that can be used to open up many new fields of application and advance the production of synthetic fibres from CO2.
Prof. Dr. Walter Leitner
MPI für Chemische Energiekonversion
45470 Mülheim an der Ruhr