Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced plans to invest $25 million in fundamental science to lay the groundwork for technology that finds reuses for plastic waste, makes strides toward addressing the global plastic waste crisis, and reduces the climate impacts of plastic production.

DOE’s research investment will focus on polymer upcycling, the process of efficiently deconstructing and rebuilding polymers, which are the essential building blocks of plastics. Polymer upcycling has the potential to turn waste plastic into chemicals, fuels, and other products of value and greatly reduce the high energy costs associated with plastic production.

“Polymer upcycling holds the promise of boosting reuse of plastic waste and lowering the energy costs of plastic production,” said Dr. Steve Binkley, Acting Director of DOE’s Office of Science. “This research will provide insights into chemical and materials phenomena that will be critical to accelerating developments in this emerging area.”

Less than ten percent of waste plastics are currently recycled in the United States, and globally plastic waste is a growing environmental threat, especially to rivers and oceans that absorb many millions of tons of such waste each year. Fundamental breakthroughs in chemistry and materials science are needed to increase the reuse of discarded plastics and thereby reduce the accumulation of plastic waste in the environment.

Expanding the reuse of plastics through polymer upcycling also has the potential to significantly cut down on the environmental impacts of plastic production, an energy-intensive and greenhouse gas emitting process that uses almost exclusively petroleum and natural gas. The development of new, lower energy polymer upcycling processes could bring major energy savings for an industry that consumes six percent of the nation’s entire energy output annually, according to DOE estimates. 

The funding opportunity, titled “Chemical Upcycling of Polymers” is part of a series of research efforts sponsored under DOE’s Plastic Innovation Challenge, which was launched in 2019 to make domestic processing of plastic waste more economically viable and energy-efficient, develop new and improved plastic materials, and ultimately reduce plastic waste accumulation.

The research sponsored under this funding opportunity will pursue basic discoveries to enable energy-efficient deconstruction and reassembly of polymers, to improve polymer properties, and to enable the more efficient reuse of polymer components. 

National laboratories, universities, industry, and nonprofit organizations will be eligible to lead applications for the three-year awards, which will be selected based on peer review. The Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) within the Department’s Office of Science, which is funding the effort, envisions awards both for single investigators and larger teams.

Total planned funding is $25 million for projects of three years in duration, with $8.3 million in Fiscal Year 2021 dollars and outyear funding contingent on congressional appropriations. The Funding Opportunity Announcement can be found on the BES funding opportunities page.