When bad plastic turns good

Catalytic method allows for ‘upcycling’, researchers suggest.

An electron micrograph of platinum nanoparticles distributed onto perovskite nanotubes.

Northwestern University/Argonne National Laboratory/Ames Laboratory

US researchers say they have developed a catalytic method to turn single-use plastic into high-quality liquid products such as motor oils, lubricants, detergents and even cosmetics.

A team led by Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, and Ames Laboratory describes the process in the journal ACS Central Science.

The key is making use of the strong carbon-carbon bonds that mean plastics don’t naturally degrade – they break up into dangerous microplastics.

"We sought to recoup the high energy that holds those bonds together by catalytically converting the polyethylene molecules into value-added commercial products," says Argonne’s Massimiliano Delferro.

The catalyst comprises platinum nanoparticles deposited onto perovskite nanocubes using atomic layer deposition, a technique developed at Argonne that allows precise control of nanoparticles.

Under moderate pressure and temperature, the researchers say, the catalyst cleaves plastic's carbon-carbon bond to produce high-quality liquid hydrocarbons.

This, they add, is in stark contrast to commercially available catalysts, which generate lower quality products with many short hydrocarbons, limiting the products' usefulness.

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  1. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acscentsci.9b00722
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