Tech Briefs Magazine - August 2021 - 43

Method Turns Discarded Plastic into Surfactants
The chemical process turns plastic into biodegradable chemicals for surfactants and detergents.
Ames Laboratory, Ames, Iowa
S
cientists discovered a chemical pro -
cess that provides biodegradable, val -
uable chemicals from discarded plastics
to be used as surfactants and detergents
in a range of applications. The process
has the potential to create more sustainable
and economically favorable lifecycles
for plastics.
The researchers targeted their work
on the deconstruction of polyolefins,
which represent more than half of all
discarded plastics and includes nearly
every kind of product - toys, food packaging,
pipe systems, water bottles, fabrics,
shoes, cars, and furniture.
The chemical construction of polyolefin
plastics - long, strong chains of
carbon-carbon bonds - makes them
tough and durable and also makes them
hard to break down. Polyolefins also generally
lack the chemical groups that
could be targeted in deconstruction pro -
cesses. Many existing processes to recycle
plastic result in less valuable, less usable
components, making the eco nom ic feasibility
of recycling far less appealing.
The new process uses what is already
known about key steps of polymerization
- the assembling of long polymer strands
- but in reverse, by breaking some of the
carbon-carbon bonds in the chains. Once
a few carbon-carbon bonds are broken,
the shortened polymer chains transfer to
an aluminum end group to form reactive
species. The catalysts and reactions for the
process are related to those used in alkene
polymerization, leveraging well understood
chemistry.
The intermediates of the transformation
are easily converted into fatty alcohols
or fatty acids or are used in other
synthetic chemistry to create chemicals
or materials that are valuable as detergents,
emulsifiers, pharmaceuticals, and
cosmetics. Because the process is catalytically
controlled, desirable product
chain lengths can be targeted for synthesis.
The end products are biodegradable,
unlike polyethylene and polypro -
pylene starting materials.
For more information, contact Aaron
Sadow, Director, Institute for Cooperative
Upcycling of Plastics, at sadow@amelab.
gov; 515-294-8069.
Organic Material for Next-Generation HVAC Technologies
An enhanced polymer could be used for more energy-efficient systems with a smaller
carbon footprint.
Texas A&M University, College Station
eating, ventilation, and air conditioning
(HVAC) systems often come
with dehumidifiers but are currently not
energy efficient, guzzling around 76% of
the electricity in commercial and residential
buildings. Researchers have de -
termined that organic material called poly -
imides use less energy to dry air. Poly -
imide-based dehumidifiers can bring
down the price of HVAC systems, which
currently cost thousands of dollars.
The researchers took an existing
robust polymer and improved its dehumidification
efficiency. These polymerbased
membranes could help develop
the next generation of HVAC and dehumidifier
technologies that are not just
more efficient than current systems but
also have a smaller carbon footprint.
Dehumidifiers remove moisture from
the air to a comfortable level of dryness,
thereby improving air quality and eliminating
dust mites, among other useful
functions. The most commonly available
dehumidifiers use refrigerants. These
chemicals dehumidify by cooling the air
and reducing its ability to carry water.
But despite their popularity, refrigerants
are a source of greenhouse gases - a
ma jor culprit for global warming.
H
Tech Briefs, August 2021
Cov
Dehumidifiers with enhanced polyimide membranes (white disc) will be energy-efficient and have
a smaller carbon footprint. (Photo: Dharmesh Patel/Texas A&M Engineering)
As an alternative material for dehumidification,
naturally occurring materials
known as zeolites have been widely
considered for their drying action. Un -
like refrigerants, zeolites are desiccants
that can absorb moisture within their
water-attractive (hydrophilic) pores. Al -
though these inorganic materials are
green and have excellent dehumidification
properties, zeolite-based dehumidiwww.techbriefs.com
ToC
fiers
pose challenges of their own. They
are expensive to synthesize and are weak
- they need good supporting structures
that are quite expensive.
The team turned to polyimides, which
are known for their high rigidity and tolerance
for heat and chemicals. At the
molecular level, the basic unit of these
high-performance polymers is repeating,
ring-shaped imide groups connect43
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Tech Briefs Magazine - August 2021

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Tech Briefs Magazine - August 2021 - Intro
Tech Briefs Magazine - August 2021 - Sponsor
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