Plastic waste can be upcycled into high-quality motor oils, cosmetics by new technology
Researchers came up with a catalyst capable of breaking the tough bonds in plastics to produce high-quality liquid hydrocarbons, which could find use in motor oil, lubricants or waxes or further processed to make ingredients for detergents and cosmetics
Imagine a world where we don't have to dump plastic waste into our landfills and oceans. And imagine making something profitable out of them. This isn't wishful thinking: scientists have developed a new method that could recycle tons of plastic into commercially important products such as motor oils, waxes and cosmetics.
Explaining the initiative, Aaron D Sadow, a scientist in the Division of Chemical and Biological Sciences at Ames Laboratory, who was a part of the team, says, "There are certainly things we can do as a society to reduce consumption of plastics in some cases. But there will always be instances where plastics are difficult to replace, so we really want to see what we can do to find value in the waste."
Currently, plastics are recycled by either melting or reprocessing them. But this method, the scientists say, usually yield low-quality plastic products. The US alone generates 34.5 million tons of plastic waste each year and most of them end up in developing countries with poor environmental regulations, according to an investigation by the Guardian. Countries like Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, are left to do the dirty, labor-intensive process of recycling.
Still, recycling doesn't solve all problems. Of the 380 million tons of plastic that is generated annually, only 25 percent of them are recycled, the team says. They also add that melting plastic or using other conventional methods could generate greenhouse gases and toxic byproducts. On the other hand, they say, their technology produces far less waste.
"Our findings have broad implications for developing a future in which we can continue to benefit from plastic materials, but do so in a way that is sustainable and less harmful to the environment and potentially human health," says Northwestern's Kenneth R Poeppelmeier, one of the authors of the study.
For their study, the scientists targeted plastics' strongest feature: the bonds that hold them together. It is these bonds that prevent plastics from getting degraded when left on their own.
So they created an equally strong catalyst in the lab, made of platinum and another material called perovskite. Instead of using the usual size, they reduced the size of these materials to nano sizes—one billionth of a meter—giving them newer and improved properties. Using a sophisticated technique, they then deposited the nano-sized platinum onto perovskite.
The platinum-perovskite duo could break the tough bonds in plastics and produce high-quality liquid hydrocarbons, which could find use in motor oil, lubricants or waxes or further processed to make ingredients for detergents and cosmetics.
While this may look promising, the scientists think their technology needs some fine-tuning. "The process requires more development. In fact, we are looking for collaboration with the private sector to improve this technology further," Massimiliano Delferro, group leader of Argonne National Laboratory's catalysis program told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
The catalyst, in particular, requires more work. "Platinum is a very expensive (and rare) metal. In addition, the procedure to synthesize the perovskite support has not been optimized yet. This technology is not ready for commercialization yet. But is it a very good starting point for future development," he told MEAWW.