Skip to main content

$1.6M Awarded to Northwestern-Industry Partnership for Circular Plastics Innovation

U.S. Department of Energy supports joint research by Northwestern and BASF

Mike M. McMahon | December 6, 2021
Share This:

Evanston, Ill. — A research team led by Northwestern University has received a $1.6 million award to develop new methods for recycling and upcycling plastic waste. The initiative will specifically target a widely used type of plastic known as polyurethanes, which currently experiences recycling rates of near zero percent.

The award is funded through the REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership created by the U.S. Department of Energy to help the country move toward what is known as a “circular economy”—a sustainability-focused economic model in which waste is eliminated by continually reusing and recycling resources.

The researchers are especially interested in polyurethane foam, a plastic spongy material used in everything from bedding and upholstery to home insulation and automobiles. Designed with durability in mind, polyurethane foam cannot be melted down and recycled like many other types of plastics. At best, the material can be shredded into fibers to be used in carpeting and similar applications. More commonly, it ends up in landfills or is occasionally incinerated.

“The goal of the project is to take polyurethane at the end of its life and to recycle it so the new materials are of equal quality and value as the original materials,” says Will Dichtel, who will lead the research on behalf of Northwestern. “We’re also looking at potentially upcycling the materials, converting them into more valuable products at the end of their life... This would be a big step forward for improving the circularity.”

Dichtel is the Robert L. Letsinger Professor of Chemistry in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a researcher in the Program on Plastics, Ecosystems, and Public Health (PEPH) at the university-wide Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

As an industry partner for the project, Dichtel is working with BASF, one of the largest manufactures of polyurethane in the world. Such involvement from industry is essential for ensuring that new solutions are designed with scalability in mind, says Dichtel.

“This project is a bridge between discoveries that emerge from an academic lab and the needs of commercial polyurethane markets. At some point, the chemistry being developed… needs to show that it can be scalable and that it’s compatible with design and business model constraints for polyurethanes. BASF is an expert in that business, and it would be hard for us to move forward with solving commercial hurdles without working closely with them,” he says.

The development of deployable industrial solutions could have a sizeable impact on plastic pollution and global markets. In 2017, worldwide production for polyurethanes totaled about 21 million tons with a market size in excess of $45 billion (USD), according to market research firm DMI.

Northwestern researchers are sub-grantees on two additional REMADE Institute awards allocated during this grant cycle. Professor of Mechanical Engineering Wei Chen will be supporting work aimed at re-manufacturing of commercial vehicle tires, and Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Linda Broadbelt will be supporting the development of new recycling methods for polyethylene terephthalate and polyolefins.