Feature

Renewable bonds

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Science  20 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6459, pp. 1236-1239
DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6459.1236

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Summary

Oil is the starting material for more than just transportation fuel. It's also the source of dozens of petrochemicals that companies transform into the versatile and valued materials of modern life: gleaming paints, tough and moldable plastics, pesticides and detergents. Industrial chemistry's use of petroleum accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Now, an increasing number of scientists and companies think the same final compounds could be made by harnessing renewable energy rather than digging up and rearranging hydrocarbons and spewing the waste carbon dioxide into the air. First, renewable electricity would split abundant molecules such as carbon dioxide, water, oxygen, and nitrogen into reactive fragments. Then, more renewable electricity would help stitch those chemical pieces together to create the end products that modern society relies on and is unlikely to give up. This new approach for making commodity chemicals likely won't turn the industry green overnight. But the continued growth of renewable energy will likely make it increasingly profitable to displace petroleum as the chemical industry's primary feedstock.

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