Researchers Develop Eco-Friendly Method to Turn Single-Use Plastics into Valuable Chemicals

Aug. 25, 2023
UC Santa Barbara researchers repurpose single-use plastics into valuable chemicals, offering greener alternatives and waste reduction.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara have devised an innovative method to transform single-use plastics into valuable alkylaromatics, the foundational molecules in detergents and other useful chemicals. Traditionally, such molecules are produced from fossil fuels, but this new process repurposes waste plastics, offering a greener alternative, according to an Aug. 24 press release from the university. The researchers, led by chemical engineering professor Susannah Scott, improved upon their previous technique by enhancing the acidity of the catalyst used in the conversion process. This adjustment increased both the speed and selectivity of the reaction.

The updated method operates at moderate temperatures and requires minimal energy input. Compared to the initial 24-hour conversion time, the new process completes within a few hours, enabling the transformation of larger quantities of plastic in a reasonably sized reactor. The researchers foresee the potential for commercialization with further refinements, which could contribute to tackling the plastic waste crisis. By converting waste plastics into alkylaromatics and subsequently into surfactants for soaps, detergents and cleaning products, this process could reduce the reliance on fossil fuel-intensive methods.

However, the sustainability of the approach hinges on a comprehensive lifecycle assessment that considers energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. If the method proves environmentally viable, it could significantly curb plastic pollution while promoting a more circular use of resources.

 “We will need multiple targets to deal with the waste plastic problem, but this is a fairly big one,” Scott says. “This is worth doing.”

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