A group of Georgia Tech researchers has received a four-year, $2 million grant (effective October 1, 2020) from the National Science Foundation to help tackle the problem of accumulating plastic waste in landfills and the environment.
The researchers include Professors Carsten Sievers, Fani Boukouvala, Sankar Nair, and Chris Jones of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering as well as Omar Asensio of the School of Public Policy.
They will develop new approaches to convert plastics into valuable chemicals and related consumer strategies.
Titled “Plastics Recycling Processes by Integrating Mechanocatalytic Depolymerization, Monomer Purification, and Consumer Behavior,” the project will investigate and develop a process that breaks down polymers by application of mechanical forces (e.g., in a ball mill) in the solid phase with zero/minimal solvent use.
According to the researchers, energy-efficient recovery and purification of the chemical products will be achieved using nanoporous materials that separate molecules based upon size, shape, or specific interactions. Process systems modeling will identify the key requirements for integrating these technological units into viable industrial processes.
At the same time, consumer behavior studies will reveal means of motivating consumers to provide suitable plastics streams and increase public acceptance of the proposed products. Thus, technological innovations and behavioral/logistical insights will be integrated into process and supply chain-level models that guide long-term economic decision-making.
“This framework has great potential to be a transformative paradigm change in how plastics recycling systems are envisaged and designed,” according to the researchers. “Our vision is that the project will build the foundation for technologies that will the heart of plastics refineries of the future.”
The project will feature a number of educational and outreach activities, including the infusion of circular economy concepts into the Georgia Tech curriculum through collaborative teaching module development as well as wider dissemination of these concepts through an online Lecture Archive for Sustainable Chemical Processes accessible to worldwide users.