Over the last few years, “carbon neutral” has become a major buzzword in a variety of industries. The goal of carbon neutrality is to not contribute any more harmful carbon emissions into our environment. But if we always stay neutral, how can we make progress back in the right direction? That’s the question being asked by Dr. James Eagan, a University of Akron professor who is developing a biodegradable, carbon-negative plastic. And while plant-based plastics of recent years may provide one alternative, he’s proposing a process that skips plants altogether, reclaiming the carbon that’s already in our environment.
“Anyone who’s a gardener knows how much time, effort, fertilizer, water, sunlight and land goes into growing plants,” he said. “We make 300 million tons of plastics every year, and that’s projected to grow to more than a billion tons by 2050. So if we can take plants out of the equation with engineering and science, we can do this more efficiently. We are making polymers from carbon dioxide, which is both a very cheap material and can help deal with the climate scourge of plastics. And there are a lot of economic reasons to try to rethink where we get our materials from. Fossil fuels didn’t disappear, we just turned them all into carbon dioxide. So we’re trying to reverse that process.”
Eagan is assistant professor in the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, studying plastic sustainability. Before joining the University of Akron team, Eagan worked at Saudi Aramco in a division that was working on making polyurethanes out of carbon dioxide, which taught him the challenges of activating the carbon dioxide and turning it into a polymer. There, he learned that most methods “put more energy and emit more CO2 to make those materials that you’re actually saving,” so he set out to create something carbon negative, which is a different term than the “carbon neutral” moniker that many have come to know.
“There’s a point in humanity’s future where we’ll become carbon neutral, and we’ll all celebrate and think our work is done,” he said. “But once we reach that point, temperatures will continue to rise and the climate won’t magically be healed. So it’s very important for us to develop carbon-negative technology, which is the ability to control where carbon is. To create that circularity of how carbon is used and thought about is critical, so if we develop economic reasons and incentives to get there, that will be a huge step. So doing that pragmatically adds another level to this.”
Eagan understands the economics of the situation, which means he knows that this technology is unlikely to replace the entire plastics industry any time soon. Instead, he said, they’re working to identify the best and most efficient uses of the new plastic, develop use cases and show that it’s a viable product.
“The hardest part of any new material is that you’re battling the economics of scale,” he said. “We’ve invested trillions of dollars into the infrastructure of producing plastics like nothing else in history. So it’s going to take us 70 years to have that same type of investment and infrastructure. So it’s unlikely and unrealistic to think that we would ever displace something like polyethylene, but we might be able to find niche applications like biomaterials — plastic that you put into your body — or certain adhesives that end up in the house. We’re thinking small to start, and then as you start to get a market share you can find other applications in other areas”
So far, Eagan sees possibilities in everything from landscape mulch and agricultural fills to carbon fiber composites. But no matter the specific product, forming a company around this new plastic will be key to the evolution of the idea.
“We absolutely want to start a company, but at this stage we’re torn between what the product is,” Eagan said. “I know that we’re going to need to be selling something soon or we won’t last long. So we do want to start an entrepreneurial side of this, and whether we go into adhesives or composites will really depend on how they perform with our collaborators. Whichever one sticks, we’ll chase after that.”
Fortunately for Eagan, he’s developing that future product in a perfect scenario for innovation and production. Being in a town known for its rubber production, Eagan is very aware of the history of Ohio and the development of new products, and he sees this University of Akron project as an extension of the state’s history.
“Ohio is huge in the plastic industry, so it’s a great place to be developing these materials,” he said. “Another thing that’s important is that we’ve all seen these supply chain issues cropping up, and we have a great case study of this before. In World War II, when we didn’t have access to natural rubber, academics and industry worked together to manufacture synthetic rubber in a few years and Akron became the rubber capital. We can see the same supply chain issues coming with plastics, and Akron has a history of solving those issues through polymer synthesis.”