With more than 80 million tons produced per year, polyethylene is the most common plastic in the world. A team of researchers has found a new method that could favor upcycling, which is a great boon in the quest to reduce plastic pollution around the world.
One of the traits that make polyethylene popular is represented by the fact that it can be used to manufacture a large number of usable goods, ranging from food packaging to insulation for industry-grade equipment.
Tackling plastic pollution
Since current recycling systems are quite far from being effective, a significant amount of polyethylene end up in landfills or in the ocean, and a massive amount of time has to pass before it breaks down naturally. Incineration isn’t a great option since toxic chemicals are released during the process.
The researchers who contributed to the study have found a technique that accelerates the breakdown process and helps polyethylene to transform into alkylaromatic molecules, which can be used for several purposes, including the manufacturing of laundry detergents, industrial lubricants, and cooling fluids.
Alternative ways of breaking down polyethylene have been developed in the past, but they rely on the need to reach a high target temperature and solvents or hydrogen to accelerate the process, The new method works at a temperature that is up to three times lower and there is no need for solvents or hydrogen.
A catalyst that includes platinum and aluminum oxide is added to the process and improves the way in which the polymers undergo the breakdown process by targeting the bonds between the polymer chains. The process also requires a lower amount of energy, a trait that makes it more affordable and easy to implement.
Further research is needed before the technique can be used on a large-scale basis, but the initial results are promising. A paper was published in a scientific journal.