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NETL’s Microwave Chemistry Solvent Process Aims to Decarbonize Plastics Production
Closeup of plastic drinking bottles

NETL’s microwave chemistry solvent process aims to decarbonize plastics production.

NETL, in partnership with Covestro LLC, and RAPID, has been awarded more than $1.4 million in funding for its proposal to decarbonize commonly used solvent chemistry for the use case of depolymerization using microwave technology. 

The Lab will advance the decarbonization of low temperature depolymerization processes by identifying lower energy routes to hydrolysis of polymers into useful chemical building blocks that are amenable for recovery and reuse in the re-manufacture of new polymer products.

The decarbonization effort will be two-fold: electrifying the depolymerization process and offsetting fossil derived feedstocks with recycled chemicals. The project will analyze the economics and environmental impact of this process considering the total value chain.

“This project will have an impact of the emissions from the two major portions of the plastic lifecycle, early production and disposal,” said NETL’s Christina Wildfire, principal investigator of the proposal. 

“Microwaves provide a fully electric solution to many processes and can be an economic and efficient way solvent chemistry moves away from fossil-based heating. By employing this technology, we can not only produce plastic in a more energy efficient manner resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, but also assist in the production of other products. In short, microwaves can help us solve multiple problems at the same time.”

The major objectives of the project are to:

  • Develop a microwave-based conversion process for the hydrolysis of polymers to useful materials, which may include polyols, polyamines, and hydrocarbons.
  • Determine processing rates, energy efficiencies and reactor configuration for use in process evaluation.
  • Evaluate the carbon footprint reduction of the proposed system through the electrification and recycling of polymers from waste streams back to production streams.

Results from this project will benefit the development of a circular (sustainability through recycling and reusing) economy for commercial scale chemical processes and will be particularly applicable to conversion of waste plastic to monomers and fuels, which is of interest to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.

Plastics are a major part of our everyday life with production predicted to grow to nearly 600 million tons per year by 2050. Due to the current linear lifecycle of plastics, they contribute nearly 3.4% of total global emissions, and are responsible for 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are produced along the total lifecycle of plastics, from fossil fuel extraction, the chemical refining of the precursors, the manufacturing of the products and finally the disposal which is mostly landfilling and incineration. 

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.