How we transform to a fully decarbonized world

Desalination is not the only energy-intensive process that would become viable. Aluminum, glass, and steel are among the most recycled materials in part because so much energy is needed to make them from their raw precursors that recovery is economically worthwhile. In contrast, plastics—in their near infinite variety—don’t lend themselves to mechanical recycling except in a handful of cases. Effectively recycling plastics means breaking them down into their chemical building blocks, ready to be put together into new forms. And since most plastics will burn to produce heat, going in the opposite direction—reassembling those carbon atoms into new plastics—requires a significant input of energy. It’s always been easier, cheaper, and more profitable to just dump the waste into landfills and make new plastics out of freshly extracted oil and gas. But if the energy came from inexpensive renewables, the whole economic equation of making plastics could change. Carbon dioxide could be pulled from the air and transformed into useful polymers using energy from the sun, with the waste plastic decomposed into raw materials so the process could begin again. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s how plants work. But, just like Hall and Héroult’s breakthrough for aluminum, new processes would require both energy and technological innovation. Decades of research have gone into creating new kinds of plastics from fossil fuels, and only a proportionally tiny amount into what happens to those plastics at the end of their lives. But now numerous companies, including Twelve, are building on new research to do just this kind of transformation, using renewably sourced energy to turn water and atmospheric carbon dioxide back into hydrocarbons, in the form of fuel and materials.

Prioritizing abundance and access over profit will lead to another jump in what’s possible.

Finally, it’s not just about plastic. If we succeed in building a world of even cheaper and more abundant energy but we again use it to supercharge extraction, consumption, and disposal, then we might “solve” the pressing crisis around energy while worsening the multiple environmental crises posed by pollution. Instead, we can think about community-led investments in energy infrastructure as spinning up a new industrial system in which clean, inexpensive renewable energy makes it possible to recover a broad range of materials. That would cut out the enormous costs of primary extraction and disposal, including environmental depredation and geopolitical conflict. 

Building momentum as fast as we can will limit the materials bill for the huge changes that decarbonization will entail, like replacing combustion-powered vehicles with their electric equivalents. This is already happening with companies like Ascend Elements, currently building a facility in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to produce materials for new batteries from recycled lithium batteries. It’s financed by more than half a billion dollars of recent private investment that builds on $480 million in Department of Energy grants, and the work is based on fundamental research that was supported by the National Science Foundation. As more and more clean, renewable energy comes online, we need to continue with policies that support research and development on the new technologies required to recover all kinds of materials—together with regulations that account for the true costs of extraction and disposal. This will facilitate not just an energy transition but also a matter transition, ensuring that the industrial sector aligns with the health of our planet.

Deb Chachra is a professor of engineering at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, and the author of How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World (Riverhead, 2023).

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