A team of researchers led by Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland will investigate ways to improve how common plastics are recycled. The effort is supported by a $2.5 million grant through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) recently announced Plastics Innovation Challenge.
The CWRU-led team will work to develop and test a technique with help from government and industrial partners that blends the better parts of an efficient but cost-prohibitive chemical method of plastic recycling with typically high-output but low-efficiency mechanical means to “upcycle” up to 80 percent of the plastic it takes in, according to a news release issued by the university.
If successful, the hybrid recycling project would improve on a historical industrywide recycling rate of below 10 percent, says lead researcher João Maia, a professor in macromolecular science and engineering at CWRU.
Maia says the technology could be a "game-changer" for the plastics industry and the environment. “Nothing comes close to plastic for its usefulness, its strength. It’s basically impossible to replace plastics, so the world had to figure out a way to do better—and we decided to be the ones to do it.”
Other partners in the project include several CWRU researchers; the Brazilian petrochemical company Braskem; Cincinnati-based company Procter & Gamble; Resource Material and Recycling of Middlefield, Ohio; and a pair of federal partners, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory, a government lab operated under contract with a division of Honeywell International Inc.
"We are excited to bring this project to northeast Ohio, sitting at the heart of the nation's plastics manufacturing industry,” says Grant Goodrich, executive director of the Great Lakes Energy Institute at CWRU, which helped facilitate the research.
Goodrich says the project could create novel solutions for two issues: removing contaminants (scraps of food, labels, etc.) from sorted plastic scrap and recycling those plastics that have so far been impossible to recycle.
Maia says the initial research will take place at CWRU and then will be tested at a larger scale off-site.
Most common plastics are recycled in two ways: using mechanical or chemical means to break down the material. (This does not include thermoset plastics, though another Case Western Reserve team is working to recycle those materials.)
The university-led team says it plans to develop a hybrid model that takes the low-cost investment of mechanical recycling but breaks down the plastics through a new lower temperature (about 350 C), lower pressure method. The team also will study how to separate various polymers in the melt state, so each can be upcycled by itself. One of the partners in this work, Braskem, was able to separate about 20 percent of the polystyrene from the plastic in trial runs, according to a news release from CWRU.
“But they did that without optimizing the process,” Maia says. “We believe we can do that even better and achieve 80 percent. That would really move things forward, and it could be scalable, so handled by individual communities with an investment of maybe only $3 to $4 million.”
The project was among a dozen DOE-awarded grants totaling $27 million, a list that also includes a $2 million award to the University of Akron, giving northeast Ohio nearly 17 percent of the total program funding, CWRU notes.