Materials

New polymer could make for infinitely-recyclable plastics

A sample of the infinitely-recyclable polymer developed at Colorado State University
A sample of the infinitely-recyclable polymer developed at Colorado State University
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Eugene Chen, lead researcher on the infinitely-recyclable polymer project
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Eugene Chen, lead researcher on the infinitely-recyclable polymer project
A sample of the infinitely-recyclable polymer developed at Colorado State University
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A sample of the infinitely-recyclable polymer developed at Colorado State University

As useful as it is, plastic isn't the most environmentally-friendly material. Our constant use of the stuff has seen huge amounts of it lodged in Arctic sea ice, penetrating to the deepest parts of the ocean and even travelling up the food chain. To try to wean us off it, chemists at Colorado State University have now developed a polymer that apparently has all the benefits, but can be easily broken down and recycled over and over.

The new polymer is designed to be as versatile as plastics in everyday use, meaning it's lightweight, heat resistant, strong and durable. The difference is that it's far easier to recycle than conventional plastics, which require toxic chemicals or complicated procedures for diminishing returns.

The team's new material is relatively environmentally-friendly to manufacture, too. Its monomers can be polymerized at room temperature in a matter of minutes, with tiny amounts of a catalyst and without the use of solvents.

But the polymer's real time to shine is after it's lived its life as a plastic product. It's chemically recyclable, designed to easily break back down into its monomeric state thanks to a mild reaction with a catalyst. It can then be re-polymerized without needing to be purified first.

The new material builds on the team's previous work into chemically-recyclable polymers, but the current iteration has a significantly improved recipe. The older version was reportedly soft, had low heat resistance and molecular weight and needed to be manufactured under extremely cold conditions – all issues which have reportedly been improved this time around.

The researchers are hopeful that the new polymer and the recycling processes around it could one day help cut back on the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfill and oceans. Before that can happen though, the team is investigating other ways to synthesize these kinds of materials and how to scale up the recycling infrastructure.

"The polymers can be chemically recycled and reused, in principle, infinitely," says Eugene Chen, lead researcher on the project. "It would be our dream to see this chemically recyclable polymer technology materialize in the marketplace."

The research was published in the journal Science.

Source: Colorado State University

5 comments
Bob Stuart
This still needs to be perfectly sorted for type of plastic, and if you can do that, thawing and freezing are the usual processes to form a thermoplastic.
F. Tuijn
How well does it fit the needs of people using 3D printers at home?
ljaques
Great idea, and I hope it pans out. In the interim, we need to globally intercept trash from the river flows and remove the floating island of garbage already in the oceans, recycling what we can of them.
Brian M
the alternative is to rid the planet of all marketing types!
Wombat56
"How well does it fit the needs of people using 3D printers at home?" If you go to the paper, the recycling involves taking the polymer back to the original monomer, so it's probably not directly relevant to 3D printing.