Iowa State University and Ames Laboratory Lead Charge in Plastics “Upcycling” Research

Faculty and Researchers Awarded Millions in Emerging Field

By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

Ames, Iowa, has recently become a national research epicenter for a rapidly emerging field: plastics “upcycling.” Researchers at Iowa State University, in tandem with Ames Laboratory — a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratory — received multiple awards over the 2020 calendar year, totaling millions of dollars in research funding.

Contrary to traditional recycling, which recovers base materials from items such as glass bottles or aluminum cans and reuses them to recreate the same product, upcycling creates higher-value products from plastic items by chemically transforming them. Four research projects spearheaded by a mix of Iowa State and Ames Laboratory investigators recently received multiple federal awards to implement upcycling by exploring new ways to repurpose plastic waste into a variety of value-added compounds, from fuel to food. Since the beginning of 2020, Iowa State and Ames Laboratory received research awards that could ultimately total over $20 million.

“Because most plastics do not decompose, waste in landfills and overflow into waterways continue to be a significant problem,” said Interim Vice President for Research Guru Rao. “Not only does this pose a problem for our environment and natural resources, this also raises a host of human health concerns. The idea of upcycling is a relatively new priority for funding agencies, and it is a tremendous success that Iowa State and Ames Laboratory researchers have so quickly established themselves as major players in this arena. As an institution, we remain committed to fostering knowledge that helps make human activities more sustainable.”

More Than Trash

Iowa State’s entrance into plastic upcycling research began last year with a $12.8 million, four-year grant to Ames Laboratory, funded through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) program. The EFRC program is designed to bring together multi-disciplinary teams of scientists to tackle defining energy challenges of the 21st century, and the program’s recent investment will allow a multi-institutional team of scientists to form the Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics (iCOUP). 

iCOUP consists of researchers at Ames Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, UC Santa Barbara, University of South Carolina, Cornell University, Northwestern University, and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Together, the group will work to create catalysts that turn discarded single-use plastics into more valuable products, providing incentives to treat used plastics as a resource rather than as trash.

Participating in the project are Ames Laboratory scientist and Iowa State professor of chemistry Aaron Sadow, Ames Laboratory scientist Frederic Perras, and Iowa State professor of chemistry Wenyu Huang.

iCOUP, funded as part of the DOE Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program, is focused on fundamental catalyst design and the basic science of polymer deconstruction. Since receiving funding, it has already developed a first-of-its-kind catalyst that is able to break down polyolefin plastics (plastics produced mainly from oil and natural gas), including polyethylene and polypropylene — two popular types of polymers used widely in products like plastic grocery bags, milk jugs, and shampoo bottles. The process results in uniform, high-quality components that can be used to produce fuels, solvents, and lubricating oils.

“Plastics recycling has an economics problem,” said Sadow, who serves as the director of iCOUP. “Available recycled plastics are commonly ‘downcycled,’ meaning they are less valuable than the original plastic. We want to change the cycle by transforming waste plastics into new, higher-value products. We are thrilled to have the support of the DOE as we discover these new concepts.”

Tons of Untapped Potential

Sadow is also lending expertise as the principal investigator for a second DOE-sponsored plastic upcycling project currently selected for funding: “Modular Catalytic Reactors for Single-Use Polyolefin Conversion to Lubricating Oils From Upcycled Plastics (LOUPs).”

Across the U.S., only 3 million tons of the 35 million tons of plastic waste that consumers threw away in 2017 were recycled. Polyolefins represent the largest amount of discarded waste plastics, with 6 million tons of high-density polyethylene, 8 million tons of low-density polyethylene, and 8 million tons of polypropylene being discarded in the same year. In partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, Texas A&M University, Chevron Philips Chemical Company, Chemstations Inc., American Packaging Corp., the City of Ames Resource Recovery Facility, and Hy-Vee, Sadow’s research team — in collaboration with Huang and his respective research team — plan to invest $2.5 million in anticipated DOE funding to capitalize on the ready availability of these types of plastics by converting them into lubricating oils. The long-term goal of the project is to reduce consumption of fossil crude oils and accumulation of plastics.

Sadow’s project is one of 12 to receive funding in 2020 as part of the DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, designed to help improve existing recycling processes that break plastics into chemical building blocks, which can then be used to make new products.

Boosting the Quality of Recoverable Plastics

Iowa State secured another DOE grant last fall, to the tune of $2.1 million, to develop new plastics that can be used to make recyclable biobased films and bottles. “Trojan Horse Repeat Sequences for Triggered Chemical Recycling of Polyesters for Films and Bottles,” led by Iowa State professor of chemical and biological engineering Eric Cochran, will bring together university researchers and partners Archer-Daniels Midland (ADM), 3M, and beverage company Diageo, to process non-food starches from peas, wheat, and beans into upgradable furan-and phthalate-based building blocks. The team’s approach will develop mild, water-based treatments that can be applied to modified versions of plastics currently in use and cause them to fall apart into building blocks that can be purified and rebuilt into like-new condition. If successful, this strategy could be used to dramatically increase both the quality and quantity of recoverable waste plastics, even from mixed waste streams.

Cochran’s research project is also funded by the DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge and is currently in the negotiation phase.

“Today, recycling is capital-intensive, labor-intensive, and energy-intensive; nearly half the energy and water required to make a beverage bottle is expended during the recycling process,” Cochran said. “This research will yield new plastics that can be recycled to like-new condition with less effort. If successful, this strategy could be used to dramatically increase both the quality and quantity of recoverable waste plastics, even from mixed-waste streams.”

Transforming Trash Into New-Age Nourishment

Where many upcycling projects focus on turning plastic waste into commodity chemicals for manufacturing consumer products, a group of Iowa State researchers is investigating an alternate, and decidedly unconventional, approach by turning plastic into macronutrients for human consumption.

In September 2020, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded a Phase I cooperative agreement of $2.7 million to Iowa State to create a system that converts wastes generated by military expeditionary forces into food. The system, dubbed Novel Oxo-degradation to Macronutrients for Austere Deployments (NOMAD), aims to convert plastic wastes into fatty alcohols and fatty acids.

For military expeditionary forces, the technology could potentially convert every pound of packaging and expendable supplies into four ounces of nutritionally balanced high-protein nourishment for soldiers. Beyond the military, the conversion of waste into food could help address looming problems of plastic disposal and food scarcity. While the effort’s initial cooperative agreement is for $2.7 million, it has the potential to entail up to $7.8 million in sponsored funding over the course of the project.

“Upcycling is trending among research agencies because the possibilities for recycling are pretty well exhausted,” said Robert Brown, the project’s principal investigator and Iowa State professor of engineering. “Recycling captures value from only a small fraction of plastic wastes. Upcycling, by adding value to plastic wastes, offers prospects for more economical use of discarded plastics, thus increasing the amount recovered from waste streams.”

A Collaborative Approach

In addition to the four projects currently led by Iowa State and Ames Laboratory researchers — totaling just over $20 million — the university is also a partner institution in an ongoing plastic upcycling project being spearheaded by University of Wisconsin-Madison. The $10 million project, named the Multi-University Center on Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics (CUWP), will develop scientific and engineering principles to enable the upcycling of plastic wastes into virgin plastic resins using chemical technology. The center will analyze the supply-chain, infrastructure, capital costs, total economic costs, and environmental impacts of different chemical recycling technology options. Iowa State is one of six other universities assisting with the initiative and will receive a $3.5 million subaward as part of the project. CUWP is funded by the DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office, a part of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

“Both collaboration and diversity of approaches have helped make Iowa State and Ames Laboratory ‘go to’ institutions when it comes to plastics upcycling,” Brown said. “What strikes me about our recent success in winning contracts and awards in this field is that it has involved four independent research teams at Iowa State and Ames Lab, rather than a single coordinated effort. I believe this reflects well on our research community’s depth of expertise and ability to apply diverse scientific and technical skill sets to identify and develop innovative solutions to emerging societal challenges.”


Approved for public release, distribution unlimited.