Antwerp start-up to convert CO2 into industry building blocks

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Smoking chimney

The University of Antwerp spin-off D-CRBN is helping carbon-emitting industries transform greenhouse gases into useful products. Using plasma technology, the company can split harmful CO2 molecules into their basic building blocks, which can then be converted into biofuels and polymers. The company aims to contribute to the circular economy needed if the European Green Deal is to be a success.

Climate change is truly the challenge of our age. In Europe and beyond, innovation and changes to industry and society are needed to combat the rise in greenhouse gases. Despite stark evidence as to the devastating consequences of global warming, these emissions continue to increase. Among many other countries, Europe has committed to becoming climate neutral by 2050, but we still have a long way to go: in May 2020, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was higher than ever before. To meet the targets of this European Green Deal, we require seriously innovative technology to enable more efficient use of resources and to move to a sustainable circular economy.

Searching for sustainable solutions

As governments and industries are finally waking up to the economic and societal threats of climate change, scientists all over the world have been hard at work trying to find solutions to help us tackle this crisis. At the University of Antwerp’s Department of Chemistry, the PLASMANT research group has been developing techniques for neutralizing harmful substances like CO2 using plasma.

“Chemistry is all about the building blocks of life”, explains Prof. Annemie Bogaerts. “We can convert those building blocks back into raw materials and useful compounds.”

Plasma is often referred to as the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid, and gas. In essence, it is a gas containing ions, making it an electrically conductive material.

“Chemistry is all about the building blocks of life. We can convert those building blocks back into raw materials and useful compounds.” – Annemie Bogaerts, UAntwerpen

Apart from dark matter, plasma is the most abundant form matter in the universe; it is the main component of stars, including our Sun. On a more domestic basis, plasma can be found in neon signs and plasma televisions.

Plasma technology is now also proving to be a promising option for converting greenhouse gasses, like CO2, into non-harmful substances. Basically, by running the gas through a device containing plasma, the energetic electrons present in the plasma split the inert CO2 into smaller molecules. The technology is a particularly energy-efficient alternative to classical conversion methods because the molecular splitting is initiated by charged particles present in the plasma. The technology could be used directly on industrial chimneys spewing smoke and gasses in the air, to efficiently capture CO2 where it’s being emitted.

The benefits of the technology aren’t just the elimination of the polluting CO2 molecules, however. Once the CO2 has been captured and converted into its basic building blocks, these can then be used as ingredients for producing biofuels, chemicals and polymers, closing the loop on a circular industrial process.

Out of the lab, into the port

The plasma conversion technology is now graduating from the lab as a new spin-off: D-CRBN. Pronounced ‘de-carbon’, the company is championed by Gill Scheltjens and Georgi Trenchev, along with co-founder & CCO David Ziegler.

“We can help companies make the transition to a circular and more sustainable economy,” explains Ziegler. “We’re mainly focusing on companies based in the Port of Antwerp, especially in the chemical, petrochemical and steel industries. Talks are already underway with regard to several promising projects in the port.”

“We can help companies make the transition to a circular and more sustainable economy.” – David Ziegler, D-CRBN

The Port of Antwerp is a good place to start: located in Flanders, the seaport is Europe’s second-largest port, after Rotterdam, and one of the largest in the world. The port handles 200 million tons of freight each year, brought in by mega-ships from around the globe.

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It is in this industrial hub, that D-CRBN has set up shop, aiming to connect with industry partners to adapt their technology to factory needs. Currently, D-CRBN is housed in BlueChem, the first Belgian incubator to focus specifically on innovation and entrepreneurship in sustainable chemistry. Silvia Lenaerts, Vice-Rector for Valorisation and Development at UAntwerp, had the following to say about the spin-off:

“Innovation happens through cooperation across university boundaries, starting from excellent research and with the support of a valorization manager and experts from industry as well as the university. The university has provided the excellent research, the pre-incubator BlueApp supports the transition to a company, and the incubator BlueChem provides a home for the newcomer. This whole process really showcases what we want to achieve.”

Header photo by veeterzy.