Waste plastic to high-value biodegradable products

19 April 2021 | Muriel Cozier

‘Plastics, and especially polyolefins, are materials you could call too successful…’

Researchers have developed a chemical process that can be used to deconstruct polyolefins and then use the intermediate material as a feedstock for producing biodegradable chemicals such as surfactants and detergents. The work has been published in the journal Chem.

The research team at the Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics (iCOUP), an Energy Frontier Research Centre led by Ames Laboratory, in Iowa, US, says that the process is essentially a reversal of polymerisation. Once a few carbon-carbon bonds are broken, the shortened polymer chains transfer to an aluminium end group to form a reactive species.

The catalysts for the process are related to those used in alkene polymerisation, the research team says, leveraging well-understood catalytic chemistry. The organo-aluminium species is easily converted into biodegradable fatty alcohols or fatty acids, carboxylic acids or halides, to create chemicals or materials that are valuable in a range of applications from detergents to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Because the process is catalytically controlled, the chain lengths can be targeted for specific synthesis. The researchers add that all the end products biodegradable, unlike the starting materials.

‘Plastics, and especially polyolefins, are materials you could call too successful…The problem comes when we don’t need them anymore.’ said iCOUP Director Aaron Sadow. ‘Fatty acids and alcohols biodegrade in the environment relatively quickly,’ Sadow added.

Ames Laboratory is a US Department of Energy, Office of Science national laboratory, operated by Iowa State University.

DOI: 10.1016/j.chempr.2021.03.007

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