Breakthroughs

IBM chemists have found a faster way to recycle plastics, even stuff coated with residue

IBM
VolCat draws on a process known as catalysis, which helps speed up chemical reactions. The project started out as an experiment by researchers focused on supporting IBM’s storied expertise in semiconductor materials and fabrication.

Adapted from the VERGE Weekly newsletter, published Wednesdays.

 When it comes to innovation, Google’s parent Alphabet probably wins the headline race, but IBM has it way beat when it comes to racking up U.S. patents.

In early January, the 107-year-old company revealed it was awarded more than 9,100 patents in 2018. That’s more than any other company — and that's a distinction IBM has claimed for 26 consecutive years.

Most of IBM’s contemporary awards are related to developments in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, cybersecurity and, of course, one of my favorite geek-topics, the blockchain. (The latter underlies an IBM service related to food supply chain safety and traceability, a matter for a future column.) But sometimes IBM’s research strays into some unexpected areas.

Exhibit A is a plastics recycling process announced early this month that IBM scientists have christened VolCat, short for volatile catalyst. The reaction uses heat and ethylene glycol in a reactor — think pressure cooker, one that operates at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius — to "digest" polyesters and separate out monomers in the form of a white powder that can be used to make new plastics. That material, IBM suggests, can be fed back into the plastic manufacturing so it can be reborn.

As anyone can tell you, the plastic industry is hungry for new recycling approaches that can scale up to handle the world’s big cleanup, recovery and reuse challenge. Processes based on chemistry or biology, rather than mechanical sorting and separation, will be imperative considering the 8 million tons of plastics finding their way into oceans every year.

The new IBM process could be useful in helping process PET, aka polyethylene terephthalate, commonly used in clothing, water bottles, grocery bags, milk cartons — the list goes on.

What’s especially intriguing about the new IBM system is that it can handle stuff loaded or coated with contaminants such as food residue, glue, dirt, dyes and pigments — it has been tested so far with everything from mannequin heads to plastic bottles to shredded polyester clothing to fishing wire, according to the senior IBM chemist I interviewed about the technology, Bob Allen.

"It’s a molecular sorter," he said. Once the process is completed, the catalyst can be recovered and reused.

How it works

VolCat draws on a process known as catalysis, which helps speed up chemical reactions. The project started out as an experiment by researchers focused on supporting IBM’s storied expertise in semiconductor materials and fabrication. It’s the same group that several years ago discovered an "endlessly recyclable" polymer that could play a crucial role in promoting reuse. The team was exploring ways to improve the semiconductor production and polymer recovery process. "IBM has a great interest in polymers," Allen said.

Mind you, this is still an early-stage invention that only has been proven at "bench scale" in very small batches, as Gregg Beckham, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, put it.

That’s why the IBM Research group is actively looking outside its own research division for a dream team of scientists including, potentially, NREL researchers. It’s also seeking industry partners that could help industrialize this approach, according to Allen. "We’re working together to assemble a team of likeminded individuals and companies to take this breakthrough to the world," he said.

None have stepped forward publicly, but think PET suppliers and buyers.

Learn more about solutions to the ocean plastics problem during the Wednesday session of the GreenBiz 19 virtual event.

Although other chemical recycling approaches bubbling up onto the market are far more mature when it comes to technology development, Beckham described VolCat as fast compared to the approaches. Alternative, non-catalytic methods of chemical recycling, such as thermal glycolysis, can take up to 24 hours, and the high temperatures required produce a substance that is somewhat yellowed, according to Allen.

VolCat uses lower temperatures and typically can run the process in two hours.

Another notable distinction is that IBM's breakthrough uses a catalyst that is readily available in the form of antifreeze or airplane deicing fluid. "It’s very cheap and very easy to get," Beckham said. While the substance can be toxic to humans and animals, it can be handled relatively easily and safely in an industrial setting, he said.

Two companies that are working on similar technologies, but that are much farther along in terms of market development, are Canada’s Loop Industries, which already has high-profile partnerships with PepsiCo, Danone and L’Oreal (among others); and France’s Carbios, which uses hydrolysis to biodegrade single-use PET plastics. The latter signed a co-development partnership with Novozymes in late January.