“We are excited to have developed a technology that incentivises the economics of plastics reclamation.”
Researchers from the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a process that transforms reclaimed PET plastic, in the form of single-use beverage bottles, into what they describe as higher-value products with longer lifespans. This means the materials can be strong enough to make what the researchers call ‘superior’ products like car parts, snowboards and even wind turbines.
Their research, published late February in the journal Joule, could help protect oceans from plastic waste by boosting the recycled plastics market. The experts also believe their new discovery has the potential to upend the economics of plastics recycling.
The researchers have developed a process that breaks PET into its chemical “monomer” building blocks. Next came the innovative part: the monomers were combined with materials derived from renewable resources, such as waste plant biomass. The results were two types of fibre-reinforced plastics (FRP), up to three times more valuable than the original PET.
The scientists predict that the composite product will require 57% less energy to produce than reclaimed PET using the present recycling process, and greenhouse gas emissions would be 40% lower.
At present, single-use PET bottles are often burnt for energy or dumped in landfill sites, where they take centuries to decompose. If they are recycled, the majority are “downcycled”, ending up as cheap fibres for clothing or carpets. Overall, less than 15% of PET bottles find a second life. By contrast, the new process can produce high-value materials, strong enough to build wind turbine blades.
“Most recycling today is downcycling—there’s very little financial motivation,” said NREL(@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 NREL team also included staff polymer researcher Nic Rorrer, who has previously worked with bio-based muconic acid and breaking down reclaimed PET. “We are excited to have developed a technology that incentivises the economics of plastics reclamation,” Rorrer said. “The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of waste plastics in landfills and oceans.”
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, according to the researchers.
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