PITTSBURG, Kan. — As plastic pollution continues to pile up in landfills and oceans, a polymer chemistry team at Pittsburg State University is researching ways to recycle those materials to be used for energy applications.
Ram Gupta, associate professor of polymer chemistry at PSU, is leading a team of eight to 10 graduate students in efforts to reduce the negative effects polymers and plastics have on the environment. Gupta recently received a grant of approximately $100,000 from a group of companies that are investing in research aimed at recycling polymers and plastics for useful applications.
During research, the team will chemically treat the recycled plastics and polymers in order to generate high-surface-area carbon with the goal of making carbon batteries, Gupta said. Carbon batteries, which are much safer for the environment than other commercial batteries, can have a 10-year life cycle.
“Since we’re working on batteries and supercapacitors in energy storage devices, we thought we could use this material for these applications,” Gupta said. “We wrote a grant, and it was very successful. I’m very optimistic, and we’ve done some preliminary studies before writing this grant proposal. These batteries or supercapacitors, whatever we are making using recycled materials, would be really safe and sustainable.”
Gupta is a faculty member in PSU’s Polymer Chemistry Program, where he works alongside students at the Kansas Polymer Research Center, an internationally recognized center for chemistry and materials science with a specialization in vegetable oil-based polymer research and development.
In the United States, producers of polyethylene, a common plastic used for packaging, are expecting to increase production capacity by as much as 75% by 2022, according to Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, a global energy and petrochemical research firm.
“With the increasing use of plastic in everyday life, many people worry about the environmental impact due to the negligence of recycling used polymers and plastics,” Gupta wrote in his grant proposal. “This is a major concern as used polymers and plastics ruin the land and the ocean. This means it is not only impacting human life but also aquatic life.”
The grant will fund the research project at PSU for one year with the possibility of renewal for the next phase. The overall goal is to provide guidelines to the industrial sector, which can adopt the process in future developments, Gupta said.
“In the current phase of research, we are just validating our concept with the recycled material,” he said. “Once the concept’s validated, we will go to the second phase of funding where we’ll fabricate the real batteries and supercapacitors in-house.”
Jonghyun Choi, 25, a student from South Korea, has worked with Gupta on other projects such as creating a battery from used coffee grounds. He said that research goes hand in hand with this project and gave him the idea for a new battery.
“This time, I’m using a recycled polymer to make a battery,” he said. “Environmental pollution is really severe, so I feel like this will be good for the environment. I’m excited.”
Felipe Souza, 27, a student from Brazil, said working on projects like this has given him a deeper knowledge of chemistry and what can be applied in polymer chemistry. He plans to use materials such as recycled plastic bottles, which can be converted for useful applications such water filtration systems.
“We will create new materials that come from a very cheap source, and we’re able to turn this material into something more enhanced,” he said. “We build fibers and can make them into a stronger material. It can apply to many things like, for example, water filtration.”
Gupta is also aiming to start a new course on polymer recycling and sustainability for the PSU’s polymer chemistry program by next fall. Sustainability is one of the university’s six strategic goals.
Tim Dawsey, executive director for Advancement of Applied Science & Technology at PSU’s Tyler Research Center, said courses like this are imperative for the upcoming generation of scientists.
“The next generation of scientists are going to solve these problems,” he said. “We can’t sweep it under the rug and say, ‘Go fix the problem.’ We have to start addressing the problem, recognizing the key components of the problem, who are the main players in it, and what are the technical options that may be available. We have to start these youngsters thinking early.”