Canadian Plastics

University of Delaware researchers get $11 million grant to study plastic upcycling

The funding is part of a larger U.S. Department of Energy initiative that will see $100 million go to 10 energy frontier research centres to develop the nation's energy economy.

July 31, 2020   Canadian Plastics

The Center for Plastics Innovation (CPI), a research centre at the University of Delaware, has received a US$11 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to tackle the problem of plastic waste.

CPI will use the funding to bring together researchers from the University of Delaware (UD), the University of Chicago, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Pennsylvania, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to “upcycle” plastic waste – chemically transforming it into fuels, lubricants and other products in an energy-efficient manner.

CPI’s funding is part of a larger U.S. Department of Energy initiative that will see US$100 million in funding for 10 energy frontier research centres to develop the nation’s energy economy.

In a statement, CPI researchers said they’re focusing on the most difficult plastics to recycle because of their complex chemical structure. “Examples include high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used in containers for milk, motor oil, shampoo and bleach; low-density polyethylene (LDPE) found in sandwich bags and plastic grocery bags; polystyrene used in Styrofoam coffee cups and other food packaging; and poly (methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), from which acrylic sheets such as Plexiglas are made,” the statement said.

“We have a unique skill set at Delaware, with strengths in catalysis, polymer science, computational design, synthetic biology and machine learning,” LaShanda Korley, professor at UD said. “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.”

The CPI team initially will investigate fundamental catalytic and functionalization approaches on the pristine polymers that comprise these plastics waste streams – processes that add new features or capabilities by altering the polymers’ surface chemistry. Then, the team will begin building various levels of complexity into the plastics, such as adding a colourant or a layered configuration, to test strategies on more realistic feedstocks.

In consultation with advisers from industry, academia, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce, the UD team will also pursue traditional and additive manufacturing techniques to simulate the manufacturing process of actual products, from a simple flat plastic film to fully dimensional Lego-like objects.

According to Korley, the team will apply different strategies to break down plastics waste – using chemical catalysts and selective enzymes – to “de-polymerize the polymers” and recover pure material for making high-value fuels and lubricants at low temperature. “Other catalytic strategies will be explored to transform the recovered materials by changing their electronic properties or by incorporating a ‘stealth catalyst,’ for example, that would activate only on demand,” she said.


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