NREL is doing additional research into upcycling high-performance polymers, such as polycarbonate, for use in high-end products. “We have other projects in the works,” said Beckham. “This is just the first one out.”
Beckham acknowledged that many others in industry are entering the upcycling arena to solve the problem of plastic waste. “There is not a single silver bullet—because of the different plastics involved, new and different solutions will be needed. This is just one potential partial solution. We’re going to need more upcycling solutions than just this one, and all solutions are on the table.”
Currently the NREL’s biggest challenge is access to plant-based monomers. “There’s not a lot of large-scale bio-based material available, and we need to intensify the bio-based monomers available,” Beckham said. Currently the NREL team is looking at agricultural residues from corn or waste wood chips from the timber industry.
Another challenge is that the bio-based fiber-reinforced composite/PET material is “not inherently recyclable at the end of the product’s life,” Beckham added.
The process is still “small-scale” in the laboratory, and NREL is working with industry partners to expand it. Commercialization of the process is still “several years” away.
That said, Beckham commented that the team at NREL is “hoping this will encourage the recycling of PET to a greater extent” than is currently being done. “Our goal is to incentivize recycling of waste plastic and incorporate plant-based building blocks and give a second life to waste plastics for high-value products,” he concluded.