NREL researchers discover method to upcycle plastics into superior products

NREL-upcycle plastics

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have discovered a method of plastics upcycling, transforming discarded products into new, high-value materials of better quality and environmental value that could economically incentivize the recycling of waste plastics and help solve one of the world’s most looming pollution problems.

Published in Joule, the study describes how the NREL team chemically combined reclaimed polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, in the form of single-use beverage bottles, with bio-based compounds to produce higher-value fiber-reinforced plastics (FRPs) that can be used in products from snowboards to vehicle parts to wind turbines.

“Most recycling today is downcycling—there’s very little financial motivation,” said NREL Senior Research Fellow Gregg Beckham, one of the primary authors of the paper. “Knowing that 26 million tons of PET are produced each year but only 30% of PET bottles are recycled in the United States, our findings represent a significant advancement in enabling the circular materials economy.”

The researchers begin by first deconstructing PET (obtained from cut up plastic drink bottles) and glycolyzing it with linear diols (which can be obtained from renewable sources). They then react it with renewably-sourced monomers to produce a series of unsaturated polymers or diacrylic polymers. Finally, they dissolve these polymers in a solution containing reactive free radical molecules to form a resin that they apply to woven fibreglass mat and react to produce a series of rPET-FRPs. The materials produced are as good as, or in some cases even better than, standard composites made from petroleum in terms of both mechanical and thermal properties.

“We hope that this study will motivate other research groups to combine reclaimed low-value plastics with bio-based building blocks and find new strategies for PET and other single-use plastics upcycling,” said Beckham.

In addition, this process is more energy efficient and less hazardous than standard manufacturing processes for petroleum-based FRPs. NREL performed a supply-chain analysis of the FRP materials and found substantial energy savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions when compared to the process for producing petroleum-based composites. This research represents a potential step forward in sustainable methods to upcycle plastics into long-lasting, high-performance materials that could boost recycling efforts throughout the world.

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