A crew of researchers led by Brent Sumerlin, the George B. Butler Professor within the College of Florida Division of Chemistry, has made a breakthrough that might revolutionize plastic recycling. Their progressive method to working with polymers has led them to develop a brand new methodology for recycling that guarantees to decrease the vitality requirement with out compromising the plastic’s high quality.
It’s no secret that the U.S. and the Earth at giant have a urgent plastic drawback. Even with the dramatic surge in its use over current many years, merely round 10% of our plastics at the moment find yourself getting recycled.
“Our work is a response to the decision to motion proposed by the United Nations’ Sustainable Growth Objectives,” mentioned Sumerlin. “New recycling methods have change into crucial to cut back the unfavorable affect of plastic on the atmosphere.”
The plastic recycling course of sometimes includes three key phases: assortment, sorting, and reprocessing. The gathering of shopper waste depends on people inserting recyclables into designated bins, that are later picked up by recycling collectors. Subsequently, sorting takes place at recycling vegetation, the place staff manage the collected plastics to sift away the non-plastic supplies and group related plastics collectively for reprocessing.
Sumerlin’s crew focused the issues usually encountered within the remaining reprocessing stage, the place the sorted plastics are sometimes damaged down into smaller items earlier than being melted collectively and molded to create new merchandise. This method usually produces lower-quality recycled plastic, because the polymer molecules that comprise these plastics are damaged down into shorter segments.
As an alternative of this industry-standard thermal reprocessing, Sumerlin’s crew explored a distinct method referred to as chemical recycling. Their experimental but promising technique induces depolymerization of the polymers in order that they revert utterly again to the a lot smaller monomer molecules from which they have been initially made. The ensuing monomer can then be used to arrange new polymers with related or higher properties than the plastics from which they have been derived.
Whereas this method has already confirmed to be industrially possible, Sumerlin’s crew of graduate college students developed a very new methodology that dramatically lowers the vitality required to realize depolymerization. This experimental work was carried out by a crew of researchers in Sumerlin’s group and was led by graduate college students James Younger and Rhys Hughes.
“Not solely does this enable recycling of plastics with much less vitality, but it surely additionally allows entry to plastics of even higher high quality,” mentioned Sumerlin.
Polymer analysis at UF has continued to obtain important consideration and funding lately. In April, Sumerlin and colleague Austin Evans obtained a prestigious MURI Grant from the Division of Protection to propel their analysis on this subject. These groundbreaking discoveries could also be simply the primary steps towards unlocking the total potential of polymers. For now, due to the efforts of Sumerlin and his crew, the way forward for recycling is ablaze with prospects, promising a greener and extra sustainable tomorrow.
Reference: “Bulk depolymerization of poly(methyl methacrylate) through chain-end initiation for catalyst-free reversion to monomer” by James B. Younger, Rhys W. Hughes, Ariana M. Tamura, Laura S. Bailey, Kevin A. Stewart and Brent S. Sumerlin, 7 August 2023, Chem.