Climate love

Astor Perkins

33 w

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Climate love

New process could enable more efficient plastics recycling

Cobalt-based catalysts could be used to turn mixed plastic waste into fuel, new plastics, and other products. But to the surprise of the researchers, a catalyst made of a microporous material called a zeolite that contains cobalt nanoparticles can selectively break down various plastic polymer molecules and turn more than 80 percent of them into propane. Although zeolites are riddled with tiny pores less than a nanometer wide (corresponding to the width of the polymer chains), a logical assumption had been that there would be little interaction at all between the zeolite and the polymers. Surprisingly, however, the opposite turned out to be the case: Not only do the polymer chains enter the pores, but the synergistic work between cobalt and the acid sites in the zeolite can break the chain at the same point. That cleavage site turned out to correspond to chopping off exactly one propane molecule without generating unwanted methane, leaving the rest of the longer hydrocarbons ready to undergo the process, again and again. “Once you have this one compound, propane, you lessen the burden on downstream separations,” Román-Leshkov says. “That’s the essence of why we think this is quite important. We’re not only breaking the bonds, but we’re generating mainly a single product” that can be used for many different products and processes. The materials needed for the process, zeolites and cobalt, “are both quite cheap” and widely available, he says, although today most cobalt comes from troubled areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some new production is being developed in Canada, Cuba, and other places. The other material needed for the process is hydrogen, which today is mostly produced from fossil fuels but can easily be made other ways, including electrolysis of water using carbon-free electricity such as solar or wind power. The researchers tested their system on a real example of mixed recycled plastic, producing promising results. But more testing will be needed on a greater variety of mixed waste streams to determine how much fouling takes place from various contaminants in the material — such as inks, glues, and labels attached to the plastic containers, or other nonplastic materials that get mixed in with the waste — and how that affects the long-term stability of the process. Together with collaborators at NREL, the MIT team is also continuing to study the economics of the system, and analyzing how it can fit into today’s systems for handling plastic and mixed waste streams. “We don’t have all the answers yet,” Román-Leshkov says, but preliminary analysis looks promising.

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  • We Don't Have Time

    32 w

    Dear Astor Perkins Thank you for getting your climate love to level 2! We have reached out to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and requested a response. I will keep you updated on any progress! /Muhammad We Don't Have Time

    • Peter Feenan

      33 w

      Isn't this just producing carbon from plastic rather than foss fuels?

      • Astor Perkins

        33 w

        @peter_feenan The innovation is the breakdown of mixed plastic that was costly, problematic or not possible before. The issue at hand is what do we do with the omnipresent plastics and microplastics plaguing nature and humanity? Others are researching worms and microorganisms that can "eat" the plastic to break it down.

        • Astor Perkins

          33 w

          @AstorPerkins thanks for reading the research thoroughly and accurately.

        • Tabitha Kimani

          33 w

          Plastics are a menace. Innovations towards their pollution solution is much welcome at this time. Keep up.

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