Oct 23, 2020 09:00 PM EDT
Scientists have now found a way to upcycle polyethylene plastic and turn them into useful molecules efficiently and cheaply, which can reduce plastic waste.
The world’s plastic problem
The Earth is now burdened with 8.3B tons of plastic waste, virtually all the plastics produced since it was invented. This ever-growing waste has no technological means of degradation, with little motivation from producers to recycle because plastic production is much easier and cheaper instead of recycling.
Polyethylene is a polymer used in 30% of plastic production. It has a worldwide annual value of 200B dollars.
Scientists have now found a way to upcycle polyethylene plastic and turn them to useful molecules through an efficient and cheap manner, which can reduce plastic waste.
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Mahdi Abu-Omar and Susannah Scott are researchers from the University of California in Santa Barbara who are now about to revolutionize this waste-accumulating viewpoint.
They developed a catalytic method that can upcycle polyethylene plastic into alkyl aromatic molecules highly useful in manufacturing consumer products and industrial chemicals.
This will make recycling more practical and attractive, which has added benefits to the environment.
The results of the research have been published in Science.
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Reusing plastic waste
Plastic is essential in many aspects of modern life. It is used for food packaging, medical materials and is found in many of our goods. They are highly useful because they are lightweight and cheap, are waterproof, and are durable and affordable.
According to Scott, a chemical engineering and chemistry professor, plastic has contributed many positive things in our life. Nonetheless, they have unintended and unwanted consequences.
The usefulness of plastic is what also makes them so resistant to degradation, which is due to their inert nature. For example, plastic pipes can keep your water clean because they do not leach and rust; however, they will still exist a century later, way beyond their intended use. They also cause such a terrible toll as pollutants in the environment.
A cheap conversion process
The researchers found a way to directly convert polymers to valuable molecules without causing a high carbon and energy footprint. The alkyl aromatic molecules are produced from the polyethylene waste without being expensive or using high energy.
They formulated a transformation method using only low temperatures and simplified steps. Their method also does not need the addition of hydrogen or solvents, only a catalyst for breaking down carbon bonds and rearranging the molecular composition to form new structures.
The alkyl aromatic molecules produced have many applications, including pharmaceuticals, paints, solvents, detergents, lubricants, and many others.
A new life for plastics
Their method is a new way of reusing plastic and make them valuable as raw industrial materials. They need not take up space in landfills anymore nor pollute our many ecosystems.
According to Abu-Omar, their method is more efficient and has the additional benefit of reducing our need for more petroleum, which is used for plastic manufacturing.
He concludes that upcycling polyethylene plastic to reduce plastic waste is a new way of thinking that can lead us to more new paradigms, new ways of making use of chemistry, and discoveries.
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