U of I, UC Santa Barbara and Dow scientists crack upcycling plastics to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, advancing a recent Science study

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Scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana-ChampaignUniversity of California, Santa Barbara and Dow developed a breakthrough process to transform the most widely produced plastic — polyethylene (PE) — into the second-most widely produced plastic, polypropylene (PP), which will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

The new study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society announces a series of coupled catalytic reactions that transform PE, which is #2 and #4 plastic that make up 29% of the world's plastic consumption, into the building block propylene that is the key ingredient to produce PP, also known as #5 plastic that accounts for close to 25% of the world's plastic consumption.

This study establishes a proof-of-concept for upcycling PE plastic with more than 95% selectivity into propylene. The researchers have built a reactor that creates a continuous flow of propylene that can be converted into PP easily using current technology — making this discovery scalable and rapidly implementable. 

Why this matters: Preliminary analysis suggests that if just 20% of the world's PE could be recovered and converted via this route, it could represent a potential savings of GHG emissions comparable to taking 3 million cars off the road.

"If we are to upcycle a significant fraction of the over 100 million tons of plastic waste we generate each year, we need solutions that are highly scalable," Damien Guironnet, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, said. "Our team demonstrated the chemistry in a flow reactor we developed to produce propylene highly selectively and continuously. This is a key advance to address the immense volume of the problem that we are facing." 

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Source: University of Illinois

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Categories: Sciences, Online Training and Educational Solutions, Environmental Protection, Environmental, Environmental and Waste Management, Environmentalism, Plastics

Tags: education, engineering, environment, greenhouse gas emissions, plastics, recycling, sustainability, University of Illinois, upcycling


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Claire Benjamin
Associate Director of Communications Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
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