A groundbreaking research initiative, led by the Institute for the Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics (iCOUP), is poised to revolutionize the way we deal with plastic waste. This Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Energy Frontier Research Center combines the expertise of chemists and materials scientists from national labs and universities across the United States. The collective goal is to develop innovative chemical pathways that empower companies to transform plastic waste into valuable commodities.

It’s no secret that plastic recycling presents a formidable challenge. The inherent nature of plastic, consisting of long chains of molecules called polymers, makes it difficult to recycle. Polymers give plastic its strength and durability; however, once these chains are broken, they are nearly impossible to reassemble, leading to degraded properties. 

Recycling processes that involve melting and remolding often result in the breaking of polymer chains, producing plastic of lower quality than the original material. Moreover, since most plastics are derived from inexpensive petrochemicals, the cost of manufacturing new plastics is typically lower than that of recycling. The durability of plastics means they can linger for more than 1,000 years in a landfill before breaking down. But what if we could prevent plastics from ending up in landfills altogether?

Aaron Sadow, the director of iCOUP and a chemist at Ames Lab, envisions a future in which science propels technologies that address the growing issue of plastic waste accumulation. “At iCOUP, we are developing the science needed to advance technologies that can address the plastic waste accumulation problem,” he said. 

If successful, a new carbon cycle could emerge that repurposes the carbon in plastics for other chemicals and materials, ultimately incorporating plastics into a circular economy and eliminating the need for landfills.

To achieve this ambitious goal, the team is working on novel chemical recycling methods that will not only create sustainable, high-quality plastic materials but also convert plastic into valuable chemical products. These products include lubricants and surfactants, which serve to reduce the surface tension of a liquid.

Massimiliano Delferro, a chemist at Argonne and the deputy director of iCOUP, is optimistic about the long-term impact of their research. “In 20 or 30 years, we want to use the technology we develop at iCOUP to make new products from plastic waste that is currently lost in the environment,” he said. However, he acknowledges the scientific hurdles ahead, admitting that the task is a “big challenge.”

The researchers have had a stream of recent successes. One notable achievement is the development of a method to make plastics easier to recycle. The team successfully broke up plastics and transformed them into a new biodegradable polymer, which is simpler to recycle. This innovative chemical recycling method resulted in plastic products with quality comparable to the original plastic waste. Remarkably, the process allows plastics to be recycled repeatedly without compromising their quality.

Another significant breakthrough came in the form of a new catalyst. The researchers created a zirconia-based catalyst capable of separating polymers in plastic waste. Current catalysts often rely on expensive rare earth metals, such as platinum. Zirconia serves as an effective, relatively inexpensive, and abundant alternative. By suspending ultrasmall zirconia nanoparticles in silica, the scientists managed to separate the long plastic polymers at specific intervals, producing new high-value chemicals at a low cost.

The experts also focused on developing a more efficient way to produce a particular catalyst that transforms plastic waste into lubricants. Originally created by their partners at Northwestern University, this catalyst is highly effective but challenging and costly to produce. The iCOUP researchers discovered a simpler and less expensive chemical technique for producing large quantities of the catalyst, paving the way for potential commercial applications in the future.

In their most recent accomplishment, the team found a method to add functionality to plastic polymers once they are broken apart. This process involves chemically modifying the plastic waste to make it suitable for use in more valuable products, such as surfactants or emulsifiers, which help keep two liquids mixed.

“In this latest round of research, the APS successfully delivered molecular-level information about the newly developed catalysts, elucidating how they function and providing a technical clue toward higher performance,” explained Byeongdu Lee, a physicist at Argonne and a group leader at the APS. “This work shows how the knowledge collected from this powerful X-ray facility can be put to use to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, such as plastic pollution.”

With a focus on bringing their technology to market, the researchers have already begun collaborating with companies, including Chevron Philips and a startup launched by their former iCOUP post-docs, to commercialize their technologies. As they continue to develop innovative ways to upcycle plastics, these partnerships may pave the way for practical solutions to the global plastic waste challenge.

“Our goal now is to create a product that companies can use in a way to make a profit,” said Magali Ferrandon, a chemist at Argonne and part of the iCOUP team. “We want to make it cheaper and easier for companies to be able to do this commercially.”

As the experts continue to make strides in addressing plastic waste, their efforts could have far-reaching implications for the environment, the economy, and the future of our planet. In time, their work may contribute to a world where plastic waste no longer poses a threat, and instead becomes a valuable resource for new materials and applications.

The research is published in the journal Nature Catalysis.