Conventional polyethylene production, powered by fossil fuels, could one day be replaced by chemical reactors that rely on renewable energy and consume carbon dioxide. Plastics are a climate problem. Making precursors for common plastics, such as ethylene and carbon monoxide (CO), consumes fossil fuels and releases plenty of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ). In recent years, chemists have devised bench-top reactors called electrochemical cells that aim to reverse the process, starting with water and waste CO 2 from industrial processes and using renewable electricity to turn them into feedstocks for plastics. But that green vision has a practical problem: The cells often consume highly alkaline additives that themselves take energy to make. “This has been a very challenging scientific problem,” says Peidong Yang, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley. Now, his team and a second group are reporting strides toward solving the alkalinity hurdle. One advance links two electrochemical cells in tandem to bypass the problem altogether, and another turns to an enzymelike catalyst to generate a desired chemical without consuming alkaline additives. The plastics industry isn’t about to abandon fossil fuels for CO 2 and renewable electricity, but “the field is picking up steam,” says Feng […]

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