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Team of Researchers Awarded $2.5 Million for Sustainable Plastics Innovation

U.S. Department of Energy supports joint research from Northwestern, Argonne National Laboratory, and industry partners

Mike M. McMahon | February 10, 2020

Evanston, Ill. -- A team of engineers and scientists from Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, and several global industrial partner institutions will receive $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for research toward the development of new sustainable polymers, recycling methods, and environmental impact assessment tools. The collaborative initiative, known as Responsible Innovation for Highly Recyclable Plastics, or “ResIn” for short, will initially focus on polyurethanes—a popular class of polymer used in everything from construction and insulation to furniture and textiles.

“Global production for polyurethanes is about 18 million tons per year with market size in excess of $55 billion. These materials have a wide range of applications, but the reality is that their current recycling rate is zero percent,” says Linda Broadbelt, principal investigator for ResIn and Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of chemical and biological engineering as well as associate dean for research in engineering at Northwestern.

ResIn’s research could have far-reaching implications for addressing plastic pollution. “The focal point for ResIn is polyurethanes, but the methodology that we’re test-driving could also be applied more broadly to other types of polymers,” Broadbelt says. Scientists estimate that the world produces about 300 million tons of plastic waste per year, with 80 percent ending up in landfills or the environment.

ResIn’s Approach

ResIn’s interdisciplinary team is taking a holistic approach to sustainable polymers, rethinking the entire lifecycle of the materials. The researchers are testing their method to develop two types of replacements for common polyurethane materials—polyhydroxyurethanes and polythiourethanes—through the following process:

  • Development of bio-based alternatives: Through computer modeling and laboratory fabrication and testing, ResIn will identify new environmentally benign, bio-based monomers—the individual molecules that are bonded together to form a polymer—in order to form materials that can economically replace traditional polyurethanes.
  • Improved recycling and recovery processes: The ResIn team will design and deploy highly efficient recycling methods that allow for the repeated reuse of their polymers with minimal loss in material performance. ResIn will also experiment with new processes that allow for improved recovery of monomers. These processes will be implemented and improved through laboratory testing and advanced computer modeling.
  • Environmental and economic end-of-life analysis: Economic and environmental sustainability are woven throughout ResIn’s approach. The team will use environmental risks and benefit analyses over the lifecycle of its materials and processes, including those related to human health, to guide the selection of the most suitable products. In addition to environmental impact analyses, ResIn will use a technoeconomic analysis to determine the economic viability of its findings.

With an eye on commercial scalability, Northwestern and Argonne have included several industrial partners from Dow Chemical Company, Michelin, and Fenner Precision on the ResIn team. The research will be conducted as part of the Program on Plastics, Ecosystems, and Public Health at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

“By drawing on expertise at Argonne and Northwestern, we’re able to bring together all of these experts in a geographically concentrated area to focus on different pieces of the problem,” says Broadbelt. “I also think engaging [industrial] project partners that can make a difference is really key to meeting our goals. Infiltration of these new materials into commercial use—even if it’s a small fraction—is a real possibility for something like this.”

A complete list of ResIn team members from Northwestern and Argonne spans several areas of expertise and includes:

  • Linda Broadbelt (Principal Investigator), Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, as well as the Associate Dean for Research in Engineering at Northwestern
  • Jennifer Dunn, Research Associate Professor of Engineering and Director of Research for the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering at Northwestern
  • John Torkelson, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern
  • Cristina Negri, Director of  the Environmental Science Division at Argonne
  • Rao Kotamarthi, Chief Scientist/Department Head for Atmospheric Science and Climate Research at Argonne
  • Troy Hawkins, Group Leader for the Fuels and Products Group at Argonne
  • Bruce Biwer, Environmental Chemist and Program Manager at Argonne
  • Meltem Urgun-Demirtas, Group Leader for Bioprocesses and Reactive Separations at Argonne

This work is supported by DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (solicitation number DE-FOA-0002029).


Press Contact:
Mike M. McMahon,, (847) 467-1361