The Argonne National Lab takes on a pollution source the world can’t live without

A group of scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory has teamed up with Northwestern University and Dow Chemical Company to modernize how polyurethane is ma...

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A group of scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory have one word for you. Just one word. Plastic. Well, polyurethane to be precise. This widely used material is almost never recycled. Now the lab has teamed up with Northwestern University and Dow Chemical Company to, you might say, modernize how polyurethane is made and handled. With more, the fuels and products group leader at Argonne’s systems assessment center, Troy Hawkins, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Hawkins, good to have you on.

Troy Hawkins: Hi, thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: And polyurethane sounds like a obscure topic. But really, in daily life, people are surrounded by polyurethane and products made from it. And if it’s not recycled, then it sounds like you’ve stumbled on to a really important environmental concern here. Fair way to put it?

Troy Hawkins: Yeah, we use polyurethane in a number of different products. And our group has been looking at how to improve the recycling and circularity of plastics use. And polyurethane it’s a real challenge. There aren’t many ways to mechanically recycle polyurethane, and the current recycling of polyurethane, it’s very limited.

Tom Temin: So in other words, this is one of those ones that lands in landfills, as opposed to recycling bins and maybe remelted and made into new plastic?

Troy Hawkins: That’s true. Yes, some polyurethane is shredded and reused in carpet underlayment, or certain paddings. So some of the foam is reused. But that foam does break down over time and use. And once it’s reached the end of its life, it ends up in landfills, as you said, or incinerated. Other uses of polyurethane are in buildings and vehicles, it’s really ubiquitous and very little if it’s other uses of polyurethane are recycled.

Tom Temin: So it also has pretty big economic impact to then, the use of it.

Troy Hawkins: That’s right. That’s one of the keys to identifying viable pathways to recycle it, it’s making sure that they can compete with conventional polyurethane or other polymers.

Tom Temin: Alright, so tell us what Argonne is doing here. How did you develop this program and what is the goal here?

Troy Hawkins: This work that I’m talking about today is part of a project called resin, which has to do with the responsible use and recycling of polyurethane. We’ve teamed up with Linda broad belt and John Torkelson, and I’m working closely with Jennifer Dunn and Margaret McDonnell and Christina Negri, across Argonne and Northwestern University, to develop pathways for recycling polyurethane, breaking it down and then re building up the polymers. And the project spans across work in the lab, modeling and computational work to understand what pathways might be the most valuable. And then my role, together with Jennifer Dunn and a couple others on the project, is to do the analysis to understand how these processes might be scaled up, what the economics might look like, what we call lifecycle assessment or environmental impacts might look like. So we’re providing that feedback to the team and ultimately benchmarking the technologies that are developed in the program.

Tom Temin: And I see Dow Chemical Company, I guess they’re a producer of polyurethane or polyurethane products. Are they involved also and what’s their role here?

Troy Hawkins: Yeah, we’ve had some industrial partners and Dow has really been critical to providing feedback to the project grounding our work in the realities of their industry. Here today, I’m talking about this material flow analysis that we did of polyurethane in the US. And we have a number of Dow co-authors who provided feedback provided data really helped to keep the analysis grounded in what they see in their work.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Troy Hawkins, he’s the fuels and products group leader at Argonne National Laboratory’s fuels and products group. So is the outcome of this research a process for recycling polyurethane? Or is it also concerned with the original manufacturing of it in such a way that renders it more recyclable at the end of its product lifecycle?

Troy Hawkins: Yeah, there’s two threads to the project. One thread has to do with identifying pathways for recycling polyurethane and developing the chemistry to develop new or like new polyurethane polymers from used material. The other thread has to do with looking for pathways to replace the chemicals used in the production of polyurethane with bio-based precursors. So that’s something that for example, the computational modeling has been looking at what molecules are most promising for this purpose. And then our work is looking at what are the pathways that could be used and what are the bio based polymers that are out there and what are their economics and environmental implications?

Tom Temin: And what is polyurethane made from now, what’s its main raw material? Oil?

Troy Hawkins: Yeah, polyurethane is produced from fossil feedstocks, oil and natural gas today.

Tom Temin: So in developing a new type of process for making polyurethane, then you need industry to kind of help with whether it would be economically viable, because if it costs, I don’t know, 10 cents a pound finished product, now I’m making this up, then it would be $10 using bio, that probably wouldn’t fly.

Troy Hawkins: That’s exactly right. And our place in the research is to look at the early stage technologies and what’s feasible. The hope is that those can be developed to a point that they could be handed off to industry to be further commercialized. The other context is, I mean, in the current administration, there’s a push to decarbonize and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions across all of the different activities happening in society. And so while it’s not our place to propose what policies should be, it’s likely that there will be incentives for lower carbon chemicals or polyurethane in the future. The economics of these technologies may change as the market landscape does.

Tom Temin: I guess we need a way to make it out of algae or something that you can grow in a pond instead of drilling something out of the earth, I suppose. And you mentioned several parties, there’s the Argonne people and then you’ve got the Northwestern University people and the Dow people. Who does what? Do you have researchers come in from the college and work at Argonne laboratory sites, or how does it all work programmatically?

Troy Hawkins: There’s a number of pieces of the project. As I mentioned, John Torkelson’s lab work is happening at Northwestern University. And there’s definitely exchange and interaction amongst the researchers on the project. Linda Broadbelt, her modeling activities are happening at Northwestern University. At Argonne National Lab, Meltem Urgun Demirtas is leading a lab that’s looking at the degradation of polyurethane and the potential for what happens to it in the environment. Margaret McDonnell is leading a effort that looks at the potential impacts of the different degradation chemicals that could occur from polyurethane and new chemistries of polyurethane to understand and kind of head off problems that could happen as a result of changes to the way that we do things. Today, we have a system that while it does involve some toxic chemicals, it’s very well managed. And so the risks of the current production practices for polyurethane, there’s measures in place to ensure that the people aren’t being exposed to those chemicals. And then once they’re used to produce the polyurethane they’re rendered inert. And as we develop these new chemistries, which we hope will be lower carbon, more circular, and more environmentally benign, we do need to keep an eye on what happens at all stages in the lifecycle of polyurethane.

Tom Temin: And just a final question. Are efforts like this, research, changing industries efforts happening across the federal government, in a case like this, do you find that the work is mostly computational? Or is it mostly laboratory wet based with boiling beakers type of work? Or is it a combination of both?

Troy Hawkins: It’s the combination of both. And in fact, this is a really good example of a team that spans many different levels. And as you said, both lab wet chemistry and analysis and computational work

Tom Temin: And is there a timeline for deliverables here?

Troy Hawkins: Yeah, we’ll be continuing to work on the project through the next year or so. At which point we’ll wrap up. The team we’ll also be looking for opportunities to continue in similar veins. So yeah, we hope to have the opportunity to continue this collaboration on into the future.

Tom Temin: Troy Hawkins is the fuels and products group leader at Argonne National Laboratory’s Fuels and Products Group. Thanks so much for joining me.

Troy Hawkins: Thanks. It’s been my pleasure.

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