The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
Ames Laboratory

Polystyrene waste is everywhere; scientists just found a way to break it down

17-Mar-2021 4:35 PM EDT, by Ames Laboratory

Newswise — Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and their partners from Clemson University have discovered a green, low-energy process to break down polystyrene, a type of plastic that is widely used in foam packaging materials, disposable food containers, cutlery, and many other applications.

Polystyrene is part of a much larger global plastic waste problem. Hundreds of millions metric tons of polymers are produced each year, a large majority of which is discarded after use. Due to the chemical stability and durability of industrial polymers, plastic waste does not easily degrade in landfills and is often burned, which produces carbon dioxide and other hazardous gases. In order to stop the growing flood of polymer waste and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, plastics have to be recycled or converted into new value-added products. 

Currently, recycling of the vast majority of plastics is not economically feasible; their sorting and separation are time and labor intensive, while chemical processing and remanufacturing requires a significant energy input and toxic solvents. Re-processed polymers often show inferior performance to that of the freshly manufactured “made from scratch” materials.

A team of scientists at Ames Laboratory used processing by ball-milling to deconstruct commercial polystyrene in a single step, at room temperature, in ambient atmosphere in the absence of harmful solvents. Ball-milling is a technique that places materials in a milling vial with metal ball bearings which is then agitated until a desired chemical reaction occurs. Called mechanochemistry, this experimental approach has numerous applications in new materials synthesis, and attractive features where plastics recycling is concerned. 

The deconstruction of polystyrene proceeds through a series of chemical events involving mechanical cutting apart of the macromolecules, which generates free radicals detectable in the milled material even after its prolonged exposure to air. The metal bearings used for milling and the ambient oxygen act as co-catalysts that enable extraction of the monomeric styrene from the oligomeric radical-bearing species formed. The experiments showed that the temperature rise in the material during milling is not responsible for the observed phenomenon since the temperature inside the milled powder does not exceed 50oC while the thermal decomposition of polystyrene in air starts at about 325oC. The Clemson’s group confirmed the comprehensive deconstruction of the original polymer into smaller fragments, oligomeric materials, suitable for further processing into new value-added products.

“This method represents an important breakthrough that enables dismantling of a polymer simultaneously with its break-down under ambient conditions, that is, ~300oC below the thermal decomposition temperature of the pristine material” said Ames Laboratory Senior Scientist Viktor Balema. “We think this proof of concept is an exciting possibility for developing new recycling technologies for all kinds of plastics, and that will contribute to establishment of the circular economy.”

His partner from Clemson University, Kentwool Distinguished Professor Igor Luzinov, further commented that “this discovery opens new avenues for low temperature recovery of monomers from multicomponent polymer based systems such as composites and laminates.  Also, our technology will allow extracting the monomer from crosslinked materials containing styrene units in their structures.”

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellow, Professor Aaron Rossini of Iowa State University, further noted that “electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy shows large concentrations of free radical carbon-centered species in polystyrene that was milled in air. This is a startling result because free radicals are normally very reactive. Also, the presence of the radicals gives direct evidence that the milling directly causes scission of the polymer chains. We expect that the reactive sites associated with the free radicals can be used to functionalize the processed polymers to obtain new value-added products.”

The research was funded in part by Ames Laboratory’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program.

The research is further discussed in the paper “Depolymerization of polystyrene under ambient conditions,” authored by Viktor P. Balema, Ihor Z. Hlova, Scott L. Carnahan, Mastooreh Seyedi, Oleksandr Dolotko, Aaron J. Rossini, and Igor Luzinov; featured on the front cover of the New Journal of Chemistry.

Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science National Laboratory operated by Iowa State University. Ames Laboratory creates innovative materials, technologies and energy solutions. We use our expertise, unique capabilities and interdisciplinary collaborations to solve global problems.

Ames Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.

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Newswise: Argonne senior chemist Robert Tranter named fellow of the Combustion Institute
Released: 17-May-2021 11:40 AM EDT
Argonne senior chemist Robert Tranter named fellow of the Combustion Institute
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Discretization is the process of converting continuous models and variables, such as wind speed, into discrete versions to make equations that are compatible with computer analysis. Energy consistent discretization ensures that the method does not have any inaccurate sources of energy that can lead to unstable and unrealistic simulations. In this research, scientists provided a discretization for equations used by global models of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Newswise: 050721-ber-earths-atomosphere.jpg?itok=-W-tcpvH
Released: 14-May-2021 2:50 PM EDT
Scientists Check the Math for Improved Models of Liquids and Gases in Earth’s Atmosphere
Department of Energy, Office of Science

Discretization is the process of converting continuous models and variables, such as wind speed, into discrete versions to make equations that are compatible with computer analysis. Energy consistent discretization ensures that the method does not have any inaccurate sources of energy that can lead to unstable and unrealistic simulations. In this research, scientists provided a discretization for equations used by global models of the Earth’s atmosphere.

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Newswise: Argonne senior chemist Robert Tranter named fellow of the Combustion Institute
Released: 17-May-2021 11:40 AM EDT
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Argonne National Laboratory

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To operate successfully, ITER and future fusion energy reactors cannot allow melting of the walls of the divertor plates that remove excess heat from the plasma in a reactor. These walls are especially at risk of melting when heat is applied to narrow areas. Now, however, an extreme-scale computing analysis indicates that turbulence will reduce that risk.

Newswise: Not Just Disturbance: Turbulence Protects Fusion Reactor Walls
Released: 14-May-2021 4:05 PM EDT
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Department of Energy, Office of Science

To operate successfully, ITER and future fusion energy reactors cannot allow melting of the walls of the divertor plates that remove excess heat from the plasma in a reactor. These walls are especially at risk of melting when heat is applied to narrow areas. Now, however, an extreme-scale computing analysis indicates that turbulence will reduce that risk.

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Newswise: Enhancing Land Surface Models to Grow Perennial Bioenergy Crops
Released: 14-May-2021 3:35 PM EDT
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To understand the effects of expanding biofuel production, scientists must accurately represent biofuel crops in land surface models. Using observations from biofuel plants in the Midwestern United States, researchers simulated two biofuel perennial plants, miscanthus and switchgrass. The simulations indicate these high-yield perennial crops have several advantages over traditional annual bioenergy crops—they assimilate more carbon dioxide, and they require fewer nutrients and less water.

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Newswise: 050721-ber-earths-atomosphere.jpg?itok=-W-tcpvH
Released: 14-May-2021 2:50 PM EDT
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Discretization is the process of converting continuous models and variables, such as wind speed, into discrete versions to make equations that are compatible with computer analysis. Energy consistent discretization ensures that the method does not have any inaccurate sources of energy that can lead to unstable and unrealistic simulations. In this research, scientists provided a discretization for equations used by global models of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Newswise: 050721-ber-earths-atomosphere.jpg?itok=-W-tcpvH
Released: 14-May-2021 2:50 PM EDT
Scientists Check the Math for Improved Models of Liquids and Gases in Earth’s Atmosphere
Department of Energy, Office of Science

Discretization is the process of converting continuous models and variables, such as wind speed, into discrete versions to make equations that are compatible with computer analysis. Energy consistent discretization ensures that the method does not have any inaccurate sources of energy that can lead to unstable and unrealistic simulations. In this research, scientists provided a discretization for equations used by global models of the Earth’s atmosphere.

View More
Newswise: Argonne senior chemist Robert Tranter named fellow of the Combustion Institute
Released: 17-May-2021 11:40 AM EDT
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Released: 14-May-2021 4:05 PM EDT
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To operate successfully, ITER and future fusion energy reactors cannot allow melting of the walls of the divertor plates that remove excess heat from the plasma in a reactor. These walls are especially at risk of melting when heat is applied to narrow areas. Now, however, an extreme-scale computing analysis indicates that turbulence will reduce that risk.

Newswise: Not Just Disturbance: Turbulence Protects Fusion Reactor Walls
Released: 14-May-2021 4:05 PM EDT
Not Just Disturbance: Turbulence Protects Fusion Reactor Walls
Department of Energy, Office of Science

To operate successfully, ITER and future fusion energy reactors cannot allow melting of the walls of the divertor plates that remove excess heat from the plasma in a reactor. These walls are especially at risk of melting when heat is applied to narrow areas. Now, however, an extreme-scale computing analysis indicates that turbulence will reduce that risk.

Newswise: Enhancing Land Surface Models to Grow Perennial Bioenergy Crops
Released: 14-May-2021 3:35 PM EDT
Enhancing Land Surface Models to Grow Perennial Bioenergy Crops
Department of Energy, Office of Science

To understand the effects of expanding biofuel production, scientists must accurately represent biofuel crops in land surface models. Using observations from biofuel plants in the Midwestern United States, researchers simulated two biofuel perennial plants, miscanthus and switchgrass. The simulations indicate these high-yield perennial crops have several advantages over traditional annual bioenergy crops—they assimilate more carbon dioxide, and they require fewer nutrients and less water.

Newswise: Enhancing Land Surface Models to Grow Perennial Bioenergy Crops
Released: 14-May-2021 3:35 PM EDT
Enhancing Land Surface Models to Grow Perennial Bioenergy Crops
Department of Energy, Office of Science

To understand the effects of expanding biofuel production, scientists must accurately represent biofuel crops in land surface models. Using observations from biofuel plants in the Midwestern United States, researchers simulated two biofuel perennial plants, miscanthus and switchgrass. The simulations indicate these high-yield perennial crops have several advantages over traditional annual bioenergy crops—they assimilate more carbon dioxide, and they require fewer nutrients and less water.

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Released: 14-May-2021 2:55 PM EDT
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Newswise: 050721-ber-earths-atomosphere.jpg?itok=-W-tcpvH
Released: 14-May-2021 2:50 PM EDT
Scientists Check the Math for Improved Models of Liquids and Gases in Earth’s Atmosphere
Department of Energy, Office of Science

Discretization is the process of converting continuous models and variables, such as wind speed, into discrete versions to make equations that are compatible with computer analysis. Energy consistent discretization ensures that the method does not have any inaccurate sources of energy that can lead to unstable and unrealistic simulations. In this research, scientists provided a discretization for equations used by global models of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Newswise: 050721-ber-earths-atomosphere.jpg?itok=-W-tcpvH
Released: 14-May-2021 2:50 PM EDT
Scientists Check the Math for Improved Models of Liquids and Gases in Earth’s Atmosphere
Department of Energy, Office of Science

Discretization is the process of converting continuous models and variables, such as wind speed, into discrete versions to make equations that are compatible with computer analysis. Energy consistent discretization ensures that the method does not have any inaccurate sources of energy that can lead to unstable and unrealistic simulations. In this research, scientists provided a discretization for equations used by global models of the Earth’s atmosphere.

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