The petrochemical industry produces more than 88 million tons made of polyethylene, which makes it the most common plastic in the world. Scientists have found a new way to recycle it, so a study published in Science on Thursday. It could help tackle the growing plastic pollution crisis.
Polyethylene comes in a variety of forms and it’s used in everything from plastic bags and food packaging to electrical insulation and industrial piping. It is so common and ours Recycling system is so brokenWe end up throwing some shit away. It can land in landfills or the ocean where it collapses or burns very slowly Waste incineration plants that emit toxic chemicals.
In the new study, however, the authors found a way to accelerate the breakdown of polyethylene and convert it into alkyl aromatic molecules that are used as surfactants in cosmetics and detergents, lubricants for machines, and coolants.
“Globally, it’s a $ 9 billion market today,” said Susannah Scott, a chemical engineer at the University of California at Santa Barbara who co-authored the study, in an email regarding alkyl aromatic molecules. “There is economic value and scope here.”
This is not the first time scientists have figured out how polyethylene degrades. There are other methods of chemically recycling the material. However, traditional methods of breaking down the plastic require heating to temperatures between 983 and 1832 degrees Fahrenheit (500 and 1000 degrees Celsius) and the use of solvents or added hydrogen to speed the process.
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In contrast, the authors’ new method only requires heating to 300 degrees Celsius and does not use any solvents or added hydrogen, but only a comparatively gentle catalyst of platinum with aluminum oxide. Their process helped break down the polymers of the plastic less coarse, which allowed them to extract the valuable intact alkyl aromatic molecules. Scott said the catalyst works by “cutting the bonds that hold the polymer chain into smaller pieces. “Ultimately, they turn the solid plastic into a liquid from which they can extract the valuable chemicals from.
The authors’ new process is far less energy intensive than other means of breaking down polyethylene. This is good news for the environment. It’s cheaper too, which is great news for companies that may want to scale this up. Technology isn’t ready for this upscaling just now, but the discovery could eventually be used to give plastics a new life as valuable raw materials rather than environmentally harmful waste.
“We dig a hole in the ground, we produce, we make, we use, we throw away,” said Mahdi Abu-Omar, a chemical engineer at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who co-authored the study, in a statement. “In a way, this really breaks that mindset. There are interesting scientific discoveries here that lead us to new discoveries, new paradigms and new methods of chemistry. “
To be clear, this new method should in no way license the petrochemical industry to make any more plastic. Though it’s great to have a better alternative to throw away that Creation of polyethylene also threatens public health through toxic emissions and the climate. We still have to work on it wean the world plastics production and consumption in the first place. However, the new technology could help reduce the amount of waste that is being produced and clear the mess we already have on our hands.
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