Scientists have made a next-generation plastic that can be recycled again and again into new materials of any color, shape, or form
A team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has designed a recyclable plastic that can be disassembled into its constituent parts at the molecular level, and then reassembled into a different shape, texture, and color again and again without loss of performance or quality. The new material, called poly(diketoenamine), or PDK, was reported in the journal Nature Chemistry.
Most plastics were never made to be recycled,” said lead author Peter Christensen, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. “But we have discovered a new way to assemble plastics that takes recycling into consideration from a molecular perspective.” Christensen was part of a multidisciplinary team led by Brett Helms, a staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. The other co-authors are undergraduate researchers Angelique Scheuermann (then of UC Berkeley) and Kathryn Loeffler (then of the University of Texas at Austin) who were funded by DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program at the time of the study.
The researchers want to divert plastics from landfills and the oceans by incentivizing the recovery and reuse of plastics, which could be possible with polymers formed from PDKs. “With PDKs, the immutable bonds of conventional plastics are replaced with reversible bonds that allow the plastic to be recycled more effectively,” Helms said. Unlike conventional plastics, the monomers of PDK plastic could be recovered and freed from any compounded additives simply by dunking the material in a highly acidic solution. The acid helps to break the bonds between the monomers and separate them from the chemical additives that give plastic its look and feel.
“We’re interested in the chemistry that redirects plastic lifecycles from linear to circular,” said Helms. “We see an opportunity to make a difference for where there are no recycling options.” That includes adhesives, phone cases, watch bands, shoes, computer cables, and hard thermosets that are created by molding hot plastic material.
The researchers first discovered the exciting circular property of PDK-based plastics when Christensen was applying various acids to glassware used to make PDK adhesives, and noticed that the adhesive’s composition had changed. Curious as to how the adhesive might have been transformed, Christensen analyzed the sample’s molecular structure with an NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy instrument. “To our surprise, they were the original monomers,” Helms said. After testing various formulations at the Molecular Foundry, they demonstrated that not only does acid break down PDK polymers into monomers, but the process also allows the monomers to be separated from entwined additives.
Next, they proved that the recovered PDK monomers can be remade into polymers, and those recycled polymers can form new plastic materials without inheriting the color or other features of the original material – so that broken black watchband you tossed in the trash could find new life as a computer keyboard if it’s made with PDK plastic. They could also upcycle the plastic by adding additional features, such as flexibility.