Six renowned catalysis experts participated this fall in a speaker series, sponsored by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), that focused on plastic deconstruction and the prospects for the synthesis of renewable, biodegradable plastics. The study area has become one of the fastest-growing branches in catalytic research.
More than 150 people viewed each of the Institute for Integrated Catalysis webinar’s six sessions, “Towards Understanding and Advancing the Catalytic Chemistry of Plastics Upcycling.” The goal of the series was to stimulate discussion among catalysis experts with different expertise and to broaden the research community's understanding of scientific challenges associated with the upcycling of plastics.
“This is one of the environmental problems you can touch and you can see,” said Johannes Lercher, the Battelle Fellow and chemist who helped organize the event, “and therefore it is a high priority for everyone.
“Overfertilizing of fields and the excess nitrates, you cannot see. Too much carbon dioxide? You cannot see. But polymers in the landfill and in the garbage? You can see. . It does not look good and it does not rot. Quite frankly, it’s an environmental disaster.”
Speakers included: Aaron Sadow, Professor of Chemistry at Iowa State University; John Hartwig, Henry Rapoport Chair in Organic Chemistry at University of California, Berkeley; Susannah L. Scott, Duncan & Suzanne Mellichamp Academic Initiative Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Hongfei Lin, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at Washington State University; Jingguang Chen, Department Chair and Thayer Lindsley Professor of Chemical Engineering at Columbia University, New York City; and Jean-Paul Lange, Professor of Sustainable Process Technology at University of Twente and Researcher for Royal Dutch Shell.
“We heard a lot of new things from the speakers,” said Lercher. “We heard a lot from technical perspectives. We are a science institution, so these presentations targeted a technical audience. Only one of the talks addressed the geopolitical challenges.”
Lercher, who also is a chemistry professor at Technical University of Munich in Germany, said the webinar aligned closely with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) scientific vision and priorities.
“DOE sees a very high priority in tackling the polymer problem,” said Lercher. “How you call it, upcycling, recycling or secondary, or tertiary utilization is not so important. “This is important: The nation has become very interested in using that source of carbon.”
All the lectures, Lercher said, had features of elementary chemistry that showed different approaches to chemically deconstructing polymers and potentially utilizing polymers as a feed stock to produce energy and chemicals.
Two lectures focused on polyolefins and the subject was addressed in others. “What can you do with polyolefins?” Lercher asks. “How can you offset the substantial energy that you need to break apart chemical bonds, and how can you partially mitigate this energy demand by combining it with exothermic reactions? These are important questions.”
“They took their tools,” Lercher said of the speakers' approach, “and showed us how to break bonds and how to combine it with a second reaction in order to make it a usable material.”
Besides Lercher, the webinar organizer committee included Morris Bullock, PNNL Lab Fellow, Chemist, and Director of the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis; Zdenek Dohnalek, PNNL Lab Fellow and chemist; and Enrique Iglesia, a PNNL Lab Fellow and chemist who holds a joint appointment with the University of California at Berkeley College of Chemistry. The weekly talks were held from October 20 through November 23.