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Professors, students break new ground in plastics recycling
April 14, 2014
A team of undergraduates at Northland College have discovered one important lesson: even research completed at a small, remote campus can yield global results.
Plastic Bottles into Useful Molecules
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Nick Robertson, from Northland College, and Professor Michael Carney, from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and their undergraduate team have developed a method for turning plastic soda bottles and cups into useful small molecules. These molecules have potential applications in the fine and commodity chemicals sectors, such as pharmaceuticals and bulk chemicals.
In March, Chemistry World announced the research team's results and Chemical Communications, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, published their paper.
"It's a unique finding," said Robertson, who was project leader and corresponding author of the paper. "It's not commercially feasible yet but I hope it sparks interest in more research for creating useful chemicals from waste."
Funded by a grant from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the project took 18 months and involved Robertson and his seven Northland College students and Carney and his three UW-Eau Claire students.
A Big Difference Environmentally
Plastic bottles are derived from petroleum, or oil — a cheap source. Petroleum based polymers such as polyesters and polycarbonates make up a significant proportion of the 100 million tons of plastic waste generated globally every year, of which only between five-to-thirty percent is recycled, depending on the type of plastic.
Traditional melt-process recycling commonly leads to new plastics with inferior properties — referred to as "downcycling" — that frequently find use in lower grade applications, such as carpeting.
In contrast to downcycling, the significance of the Northland College-UW-Eau Claire findings is that their system of depolymerized molecules can be purified and used in high-value applications, Robertson said.
"If you want to make a big difference environmentally — petroleum is in virtually everything our society uses," Robertson said. "This is an area where we can make a significant impact, finding ways to turn waste into something useful."
Undergraduate Research at Northland
In fact, the undergraduate research spurred Eric Krall, lead author on the paper, toward graduate school at North Dakota State University.
"The problems with plastics are very apparent in our environment, but the ways to solve those problems are not," Krall said. "My research experience at Northland has inspired me to try to find new innovative ways to solve those issues."
The Robertson research is significant in other ways. For one thing, it underscores the importance of undergraduate research as a highly effective way to educate and motivate the next generation of researchers.
Robertson, who did his undergraduate work at UW-Eau Claire — Carney was his undergraduate advisor — said he teaches his students exactly as he was taught. He provides intensive instruction up front and then he stays out of the way.
Krall said the experience grounded him in lab skills and safety and taught him perseverance.
"For about the first year we had a lot of trouble getting some of our reactions to work. It was incredibly frustrating to put so much effort into trying to get these reactions to work and only see results that weren't what we wanted," Krall said. "Dr. Robertson was incredibly helpful in keeping us focused on the end goal."
In fact, Robertson rarely performs any lab work. On this project, he and Carney supervised the research and wrote much of the paper, with feedback from their team, but they did not do any of the lab work.
"Undergraduates are so capable of doing this kind of research and become self-sufficient pretty quickly," he said.
Senior Ryan J. Andersen, who contributed his share to the thousands of lab hours, is still taking it all in.
"To know that I am able to make a difference - to know that no matter where you are, if you're onto something, you can have an impact on the world is pretty amazing," he said.
Andersen paused then concluded looking over at the lab equipment, "I love this so much."
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