Essential Petrochemicals

Ruthenium — Used to convert CO2 to methane

A theme of the posts at this site is that society will have to reduce its use of energy and raw materials. There is no way of getting around an Age of Limits. This leads to a subsidiary theme that our faith in technology is misplaced. In spite of our best hopes, they will not “come up with something”.

Nevertheless, it is worth keeping an eye on technological advances that can help us reduce the impact of the predicaments we face, or that can slow down the speed with which they are taking place. In particular, it is worth looking at developments in “carbon sequestration” — the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. This CO2 can then either be stored, or converted to another chemical.

I am dubious about such proposed technological advances because they cannot get around the basic of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. No system is truly sustainable; all the actions that we take will lead to an overall increase in system entropy. Nevertheless, this is an area we should keep an eye on.

Given this background my attention was caught by an article published in this month’s Chemical Engineering Progress magazine. The title of the article was Transforming a Carbon-Based Economy. It discusses the use of a rare element, ruthenium (Ru), as a catalyst to convert CO2 in the atmosphere to methane (CH4). I was particularly caught by the following two quotations in the article,

We are a hydrocarbon-based economy, and we have been for 100-something years . . . So, at least as a bridge to technology for the next generation, we’re going to have to stay largely with hydrocarbons.

We still need plastics, carbon materials, and other commodity chemicals that are carbon-based.

What proponents of programs such as the Green New Deal fail to recognize is that about 10% of a barrel of oil is used as a feedstock used to make the thousands and thousands of chemicals that are essential to modern life. The list includes plastics, detergents, lubricants, packaging, carpets, structural foam, rubber, clothing, penicillin, chemotherapy drugs, food preservatives, fertilizers, pesticides, dyes, clothing, contact lenses, and so on and so on. Even if it were realistic to run our society on clean, renewable sources of energy within the next 20 years (which it isn’t), we would still need fossil fuels to make those chemicals.

The authors of this article recognize this dilemma. Their research is pointing toward a solution whereby we can use CO2 in the atmosphere as a petrochemical feedstock.

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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