Just in time for Plastic Free July, earlier this month the US Department of Energy earmarked $11.6 million for a new high-impact R&D effort called the Center for Plastics Innovation. The taxpayer dollars will support new transformative plastic recycling technology, which would be a giant step up from good old fashioned shredding and melting. Group hug for taxpayers! If all goes according to plan, CPI’s work will lead to a high value, high efficiency plastic recycling stream that will undercut the use of virgin oil and gas in the chemical industry.
A Transformative Era For Plastic Recycling
There are some signs that legacy oil and gas giants are planning ahead for a transformative plastic recycling scenario. For example, last year Royal Dutch Shell announced a pyrolysis-based method that produces chemical building blocks for new products from old plastic.
The big question is, who will be the next global leader in the transformative plastic recycling era of tomorrow, and it appears that the Department of Energy is determined not to let grass grow under the feet of the USA.
The new Plastic Innovation Center will be based at the University of Delaware, which has a head start in the chemistry field thanks in part to a long running relationship with the firm DuPont.
That’s a good thing, because CPI has its work cut out for it.
“Worldwide, more than 350 million tons of plastics were produced in 2018 alone. Only 12% of this plastic waste is reused or recycled, according to an industry report. Current recycling strategies fall far short in recovering material that is as high in quality as the material you started with — a major hurdle the CPI will be working to overcome,” the University of Delaware explained in a press release last week.
Also, CPI has carved out tasks for itself that are more difficult than most. Instead of focusing on easy-to-recycle PET plastic, the research will prioritize tricky plastics like high-density polyethylene (commonly used for for milk containers as well as motor oil, shampoo and the like), low-density polyethylene (plastic bags and baggies), polystyrene (aka Styrofoam), and the acrylic PMMA, best known for its use in making Plexiglass.
The Brains Behind New US Plastic Recycling Effort
The University of Delaware is bringing its A team to the effort, and it will have some good company as it sets forth on the seas of high tech plastic recycling. Also participating in the effort are researchers from the University of Chicago, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Pennsylvania, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“We have a unique skill set at Delaware, with strengths in catalysis, polymer science, computational design, synthetic biology and machine learning. Our collaborators and partners bring great expertise in computational materials science and enzymatic catalysis, and also contribute characterization and computational facilities critical to advancing this work,” explains CPI co-director LaShanda Korley, who is also Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware.
This should be interesting. Korley came to the University of Delaware in 2018 from Case Western Reserve University, where she developed a biobased approach in which the design principles of natural processes are applied to materials.
Korely is also the Principle investigator of a National Science Foundation funded program based at the University of Delaware, called Bio-inspired Materials and Systems. Collaborators in that program include the University of California-San Diego, the University of Chicago, Case Western, and the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, among other partners.
To make it even more interesting, Korley’s co-director at CPI is Thomas H. Epps, III, the University of Delaware’s Thomas and Kipp Gutshall Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. His award-winning career includes an active role with the American Chemical Society among other leading professional organizations in the chemistry field, and he is also the Director of the Center for Research in Soft matter & Polymers at UD.
Freeing Renewable Energy From The Grip Of Virgin Petrochemicals
To make things even more interesting, earlier this year the leading chemical company Chemours — you know, the Teflon people — officially opened a new 312,000-square foot R&D center at the University of Delaware’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research campus in Newark, Delaware.
The new Chemours Discovery Hub is populated with more than 300 researchers employed by the company, and it anticipates that the University of Delaware will provide it with opportunities to recruit the best and brightest from the student population as well.
If all goes according to plan, those students will be tuned into sustainability from the get go, and Chemours is careful to note that the new R&D center won a three-globe rating from the Green Globes program of the Green Building Initiative.
More to the point, Chemours could be positioning itself at the nexus of next-generation plastic recycling and renewable energy, through the field of energy storage.
Last year, for example, Chemours was tapped to develop a flow battery membrane through a program administered by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and it also entered into a strategic partnership with the flow battery company UET.
Under the partnership, UET will deploy Chemours’s proprietary Nafion ion exchange membranes, with the aim of making them standard in the flow battery field (for those of you new to the topic, flow batteries generate electricity when two specialized liquids flow next to each other, separated by a thin membrane).
Narion membranes are already fairly standard in the fuel cell field, and Chemours is also anticipating that Nafion electrolysis membranes will play a role in the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future, in which hydrogen is no longer made from fossil gas but is produced by applying an electrical current to water (with the electricity sourced from renewable energy, natch).
That is a lot of membrane activity going on now and in the future, and that could be a good thing for petrochemical stakeholders. Let’s turn it over to our friends at Wikipedia.
“Nafion…is the first of a class of synthetic polymers with ionic properties that are called ionomers. Nafion’s unique ionic properties are a result of incorporating perfluorovinyl ether groups terminated with sulfonate groups onto a tetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) backbone,” writes Wikipedia. “Nafion has received a considerable amount of attention as a proton conductor for proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells because of its excellent thermal and mechanical stability.”
If you guessed this has something to do with Teflon, run right out and buy yourself a cigar.
So, is the clean energy/energy storage field enabling growth in the petrochemical industry? Sure looks like it for now, but maybe not for long.
Connecting all of these dots, the CPI plastic recycling effort could help chemical companies like Chemours transition out of virgin petrochemicals and into upcycled waste plastic. More and better bio-based plastics could also help accelerate the demise of petrochemicals.
That would be quite a turnaround for the University of Delaware, which has been a leader in petrochemical research for more than 100 years. It looks like the next 100 years will be different.
Those oil and gas stakeholders better act now if they want to keep a slice of the petrochemical pie. Earlier this year the Department of Energy also announced a new $25 million round of funding for something called BOTTLE, for “Bio-Optimized Technologies to Keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment,” which undercuts virgin petrochemicals from all angles including the use of bio-based materials as well as support for upcycling technology.
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Photo: Improved plastic recycling via US Department of Energy.
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