Recycling the unrecyclable

Representing the engineering, science and math alumni and students of Case Western Reserve University.

Recycling the unrecyclable

Polymer researchers find new life for durable, single-use plastics

The permanency of plastic has long been one of its problems. Some super-strong plastics—known as thermoset polymers and often used in wind-turbine blades, boats and auto parts—cannot be recycled in any meaningful way. 

 

That’s a problem for the environment and for community landfills, where they pile up. 

 

A pair of researchers in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering think they have a solution. Distinguished University Professor Ica Manas-Zloczower and Liang Yue, MS ’14, PhD ’18, a post-doctoral researcher in her lab, have developed technology that shows promise transforming non-recyclable plastics into recyclable ones that can be made into new products.

 

They have found a low-cost way to take rigid thermoset plastics and break them down into a reusable resin, as is done with softer plastics. Their discoveries have caused a buzz in the plastics industry.

 

“Given the fact that thermoset polymers are also quite expensive, the ability to recycle them becomes quite important,” Plastics Today observed.

 

Thermoset plastics are made resistant to heat and corrosion by a strong chemical cross-linked molecular network, which also makes them hard to break down and recycle. Manas-Zloczower and Yue are solving this problem by converting permanent, cross-linked structures into dynamic cross-linked ones, according to a press release. The dynamic network allows reshaping and reprocessing by conventional methods, such as hot-press molding or injection molding, to fabricate a new product. 

 

So far, the researchers have achieved success with small amounts of material in the lab. But they are working with the Great Lakes Energy Institute and CWRU’s Office of Technology Transfer to identify industry partners.

Ica Manas-Zloczower

Liang Yue

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