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Can the world make the chemicals it needs without oil?
Black, gooey, greasy oil is the starting material for more than just transportation fuel. It's also the source of dozens of petrochemicals that companies transform into versatile and valued materials for modern life: gleaming paints, tough and moldable plastics, pesticides, and detergents. Industrial processes produce something like beauty out of the ooze. By breaking the hydrocarbons in oil and natural gas into simpler compounds and then assembling those building blocks, scientists long ago learned to construct molecules of exquisite complexity.
Fossil - Fuels - Feedstock - Reactions - Heat
Fossil fuels aren't just the feedstock for those reactions; they also provide the heat and pressure that drive them. As a result, industrial chemistry's use of petroleum accounts for 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Now, growing numbers of scientists and, more important, companies think the same final compounds could be made by harnessing renewable energy instead of digging up and rearranging hydrocarbons and spewing waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. First, renewable electricity would split abundant molecules such as CO2, water, oxygen (O2), and nitrogen into reactive fragments. Then, more renewable electricity would help stitch those chemical pieces together to create the products that modern society relies on and is unlikely to give up.
"This is very much a topic at the forefront right now," says Daniel Kammen, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Chemists - Academia - Startups - Giants - Prototype
Chemists in academia, at startups, and even at industrial giants are testing processes—even prototype plants—that use solar and wind energy, plus air and water, as feedstocks. "We're turning electrons into chemicals," says Nicholas Flanders, CEO of one contender, a startup called Opus 12. The company, located in a low-slung office park in Berkeley, has designed a washing machine–size device that uses electricity to convert water and CO2 from the air into fuels and other molecules, with...
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