The "Holy Grail" of recycling may finally be here.
Endlessly recyclable plastic is now possible thanks to researchers at the United States Department of Energy's (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) in California.
"We're at a critical point where we need to think about the infrastructure needed to modernize recycling facilities for future waste sorting and processing", lead researcher Brett Helms said in a statement to Berkeley Lab News Center. The scientists continued playing around with PDK, until they discovered that PDK monomers could be remade into polymers that could form completely new plastic materials. According to an announcement from the lab, the new material is called poly (diketoenamine), aka PDK, and it can be broken down at the molecular level for reassembly into new things. Further testing showed that these reclaimed monomers are high quality enough that they can be used to produce high quality plastic.
We're of course a long way from sending our PDK forks to an acid tank at our local recycling plant. As a result, most plastics can not be recycled entirely - there's always some degree of loss, whether in how the plastic looks or how well it performs.
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.
"Poly (diketoenamine) s "click" together from a wide variety of triketones and aromatic or aliphatic amines, yielding only water as a by-product", the study's abstract reads.
In a ideal world, plastic would never be on a one-way trip into landfill - it's a vision we've strived to realise for decades. Once chemicals are added to the plastic for use and consumption, the monomers bind with the chemicals and make it hard to be processed at recycling plants, the researchers said.
"We're interested in the chemistry that redirects plastic lifecycles from linear to circular", said Helms. "Recovered monomers can be re-manufactured into the same polymer formulation, without loss of performance, as well as other polymer formulations with differentiated properties". Often, the plastic won't be as durable in its next life.
Though PDK only exists in the lab now (meaning products won't be available for purchase for some time), the researchers are nonetheless excited by what they've discovered and the potential positive impact it could have.
Some would argue that plastics have played an important role in powering the robust world economy that has thrived since the end of World War II. "We see an opportunity to make a difference for where there are no recycling options". "With PDKs, the immutable bonds of conventional plastics are replaced with reversible bonds that allow the plastic to be recycled more effectively", Helms says.
The full study was published last month in the journal Nature Chemistry. That estimate, of course, is fairly meaningless when you consider the fact plastic continues to be produced in such quantities that the World Economic Forum estimates that the weight ratio of plastic garbage to fish in the ocean will be more than 1:1 by 2050.
To the eternal confusion of consumers everywhere, some of those plastics can be broken down into components and recycled relatively easily.
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