New York University: NYU Chemist Receives Department of Energy Grant for Plastic “Upcycling” Research

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded Tianning Diao, associate professor of chemistry at New York University, with funding for research on “upcycling” poly(acrylic acid), a plastic component commonly used in household products. Diao and her lab will work to develop chemical methods to repurpose the polymer as new functional materials.

The three-year, $600,000 grant is part of the DOE’s $25 million investment in building the scientific foundations for new technology solutions that reuse discarded plastics to make valuable products and alleviate plastic pollution.

Plastic waste is a growing environmental threat in the United States and around the world; less than 10 percent of plastic waste is currently recycled in the U.S. Disposable diapers, for instance, are made of plastic components that are not recyclable, so 80 percent of diapers end up in landfills and the remaining 20 percent are incinerated.

A form of recycling, “upcycling” turns waste into a material that is of higher value or quality. Researchers are now looking at how upcycling polymers—the building blocks of plastics that give it its strength and durability—can reduce the accumulation of plastic waste in the environment. Polymer upcycling includes chemical processes that efficiently transform discarded plastics back to the original material or into materials with new functionality.

“Polymer upcycling holds the promise of boosting reuse of plastic waste and lowering the energy costs and impacts of plastic production,” said 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.”

Diao’s research focuses on poly(acrylic acid), or PAA, a superabsorbent polymer widely used in food, paint, textiles, and household products such as disposable diapers. Diao and her lab are working to develop chemical methods to upcycle PAA into chemical feedstocks for chemical synthesis and repurpose PAA as new functional materials for water treatment, paper reinforcement, pigment retention, shampoo formulation, and drug delivery.

“If diaper wastes could be easily upcycled, I would feel less guilty when changing my daughter’s diaper every night,” said Diao.