A team of engineers and scientists will receive $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for research toward the development of sustainable polymers, recycling methods and environmental impact assessment tools.

The initiative, known as Responsible Innovation for Highly Recyclable Plastics, or “ResIn” for short, will initially focus on polyurethanes, a class of polymer used in everything from construction and insulation to furniture and textiles.

Linda Broadbent, Northwestern University.Linda Broadbent, Northwestern University.Global production for polyurethanes is about 18 million tons per year with a market size in excess of $55 billion.

"These materials have a wide range of applications, but the reality is that their current recycling rate is zero percent,” said Linda Broadbelt, principal investigator for ResIn and associate dean for research in engineering at Northwestern University. Researchers from the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory will also contribute to the effort.

The methodology that is to be developed for polyurethanes could be applied more broadly to other types of polymers. The world produces about 300 million tons of plastic waste per year, with 80% ending up in landfills or the environment.

The researchers are testing their method to develop two types of replacements for common polyurethane materials — polyhydroxyurethanes and polythiourethanes — through the following process:

Development of bio-based alternatives: Through computer modeling and laboratory fabrication and testing, ResIn will identify new environmentally benign, bio-based monomers—the individual molecules that are bonded together to form a polymer—in order to form materials that can economically replace traditional polyurethanes.

Improved recycling and recovery processes: The ResIn team will design and deploy recycling methods that allow for the repeated reuse of their polymers with minimal loss in material performance. ResIn will also experiment with new processes that allow for improved recovery of monomers. These processes will be implemented and improved through laboratory testing and advanced computer modeling.

Environmental and economic end-of-life analysis: The team will use environmental risks and benefit analyses over the lifecycle of its materials and processes, including those related to human health, to guide the selection of the most suitable products. In addition to environmental impact analyses, ResIn will use a techno-economic analysis to determine the economic viability of its findings.

With an eye on commercial scalability, several industrial partners have been included and represent Dow Chemical, Michelin and Fenner Precision.