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Oxylum has developed a green technology to convert CO2 into chemicals such as formic acid and ethylene. By doing this, the spin-off from the University of Antwerp in Belgium is offering an alternative to petroleum and natural gas as raw materials for these chemicals. The technology is already working in the lab. The company now wants to scale it up with a pilot plant in an industrial cluster, such as the Port of Antwerp.

“What we do in our lab is actually what takes place in nature,” says CEO Bert De Mot in a press release. “Like the leaves of a tree, we use CO2 and water to make the building blocks for renewable chemicals. The energy that is needed is provided by renewable electricity and the process does not use any fossil raw materials.”

Formic acid and ethylene

With the pilot plant, Oxylum is focusing on formic acid. This is a substance that red ants also produce when they attack, hence the term in Dutch ‘Mierenzuur‘. People use formic acid (also known as methanoic acid) to remove limescale from toilets and sanitary fixtures, as a preservative in the agricultural industry, and as an excipient in the pharmaceutical and textile industries, among other things. “Currently, it is still produced from natural gas via an intermediary step, but we are able to produce it directly from CO2 with our technology,” CTO Sander Neukermans explains.

Oxylum also wants to make ethylene from CO2. This is a basic raw material in industry and is used for the production of plastics, for instance. At present, ethylene is mainly extracted from petroleum. 

“Bioplastics already exist, but the problem is that their properties are not quite the same as the properties of current plastics, and that causes problems. By making ethylene renewable, we can make exactly the same plastics at a molecular level, but instead of starting with petroleum, we start with CO2,” De Mot adds.

A pilot plant for renewable chemicals

The technology already works in the lab. Now Oxylum wants to research it further in the field and scale it up. They hope to set up a pilot plant in an industrial cluster. In the Port of Antwerp, for example. By doing that, the CO2 that they convert into chemicals in the plant can be used by companies in the port straight away. “Before the end of the year, we will try to build a one kilowatt plant that can produce up to three kilos of formic acid per day. That plant should then serve as a springboard for scaling up the technology over the next few years to a full-scale pilot plant that produces up to two thousand tonnes of formic acid per year.”