The US Department of Defense could be the world’s single biggest institutional contributor to the global waste stream, but it appears that a change is in the works. Earlier this year, the DOD launched a new high tech recycling R&D program with the aim of mining its own trash for resources to sustain military operations in hostile environments. That’s a rather ambitious goal, considering that discarded packaging from those familiar MREs (meals, ready to eat) alone adds up to 14,000 tons annually.
DARPA Does Recycling
The new recycling program comes under DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency often credited with inventing the Internet.
DARPA is also widely credited with funding research that birthed today’s world of electronic connectivity, including Windows, the World Wide Web, Google Maps, GPS, Siri, the computer mouse, videoconferencing, and drones, among others.
DARPA is tasked with providing the financial muscle for early stage, high risk, high reward technology from which private sector investors shy away. Regular readers of CleanTechnica may recognize DARPA as the inspiration for the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E funding office for cutting edge energy innovation. More recently, the idea of having taxpayers step into technology investment areas where others fear to tread spawned ARPA-C, proposed earlier this year as one of President Joe Biden’s climate action initiatives.
For the record, DARPA also has a stake in the 100 Year Starship space travel initiative. All this is by way of saying that the agency’s Moonshot 1950s roots are still spreading through the global economy, so if DARPA is turning its attention to recycling, anything could happen.
Now This Is Recycling
The problem with recycling is that there isn’t enough of it, partly due to performance issues with materials made from recycled inputs. For that matter, the world will continue to be awash in waste until people stop wasting so much stuff, and that includes packaging used by the US military.
According to DARPA, the packaging for a typical MRE contains more energy than the meal itself, all of which is currently going to waste.
All in all, military waste is a logistical, strategic, and tactical impediment in war zones, and improper waste disposal can create lasting health impacts for which the taxpayer is on the hook. It is a direct national security threat that has gone unaddressed in any coordinated, meaningful way — until now, that is.
Earlier this year, DARPA launched Phase I of its new ReSource, a recycling R&D initiative, which aims to turn military waste into usable, “purified” products, including food.
“DARPA’s ReSource program aims to revolutionize how the military procures critical supplies on the battlefield by engineering self-contained, integrated systems that rapidly produce large quantities of supplies from feedstock collected on-site,” DARPA explains.
The idea of super-charging waste recovery mirrors the DOD’s efforts in the energy area. Instead of simply improving the efficiency of old technology, the DOD has been adopting renewable energy, energy storage, and microgrids to improve resilience and security at domestic bases and overseas operations, too.
The initial phase of ReSource involved hooking up government partners with research teams from Battelle, Iowa State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michigan Technological University, which were set to work on the all important challenge of recycling mixed waste:
“Performer teams are tasked with developing systems to break down mixed waste, including common plastics, reformulate the waste at the molecular level into strategic materials and chemicals, and recover purified usable products such as oils, lubricants (POLs), and edible macronutrients.”
Apparently Phase I was a success, because Phase II began last month with a focus on scaling up the processes, decreasing energy inputs, and functioning efficiently under less than optimal conditions.
Fragrance Expert Meets ATOD
That brings us to the most interesting mashup in recycling history — well, one of them, anyways.
The MIT team is deploying both biological and chemical processes for its advanced waste recycling system. On the biology side, the Massachusetts startup Conagen is bringing its proprietary fermentation technology to the table. Conagen cites its “synthetic biology expertise, purification process development capability, and world-scale manufacturing” as its contributions.
Conagen was founded in 2010 by the plant biology specialist Dr. Oliver Yu. Its focus is on developing strains of microbes for the production of fragrances and food sweeteners, among other specialty areas.
In addition to developing new organisms, Conagen also focuses on robotics and automation for the lab. That appears to dovetail with the DOD’s vision of a scalable, transportable field system that does not require special skills to operate. Another clue on the Conagen website is its focus on “next generation nutrition” along with nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, and supplements.
The chemical side is owned by the equally interesting California startup Novoloop, founded by longtime friends Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao. Novoloop is focused on recycling polyethylene, through a proprietary process they call ATOD.
Polyethelyne is especially difficult to recycle, especially as film. Polyethylene film is often dirty and contaminated with a wide range of materials, and it often contains tints and other additives.
ATOD is based on the well known process of thermal oxidative decomposition, but apparently Novoloop has added a twist that enables it to avoid the performance loss typically associated with conventional TOD. The Novoloop process reduces polytheylene and other carbon-rich materials into molecular building blocks that can be assembled into new configurations that perform as well as, if not better than, the original material.
“We’ve handled PE as plastic bags, bubble wrap, pallet wrap, food and other product packaging, agricultural film, take-out containers, shampoo bottles, and more. Our patented accelerated thermal oxidative decomposition (ATOD) technology upgrades PE that struggles to find or does not have recycling market outlets into good-as-new performance materials that meet brand-owners’ needs,” explains Wang.
As described by Wang, Novoloop’s process deploys standard laboratory equipment and relatively low heat of under 200° C to break down waste, with the help of an an acidic solvent that recycles through the process.
As of earlier this year Novoloop was still in the validation-of-market phase. The partnership with MIT and Congen will enable it to scale up, so stay tuned for more on that.
In the meantime, no mention of women in science would be complete without a glance over at the US Supreme Court, upon which now sits a majority of Justices who incline towards the earthen vessel theory of pregnancy. It’s a sorry state of affairs when the mindset that connects light bulb technology with in utero masturbation reaches the highest court in the land, but here we are.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: “82nd Airborne Division soldiers eat meals, ready to eat Meals, Ready to Eat before a training at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, in Hohenfels, Germany June 22 (credit: Defense Logistics Agency).
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