This experiment is part of the Microplastics Challenge Grant. Browse more projects

Mitigating the environmental impact of ocean plastics via catalytic chemical recycling.

Raised of $4,600 Goal
Funded on 6/21/24
Successfully Funded
  • $5,505
  • 119%
  • Funded
    on 6/21/24

About This Project

Waste plastics are accumulating in landfills and the natural environment at unsustainable rates, causing harm to human and marine life, and producing persistent microplastics. Among the most common ocean plastics are fishing next and floats comprised of polyolefin plastics which are resistant to degradation due to their strong carbon-carbon backbones. This project will utilize recyclable catalysts to lower the energy required to break apart these plastics to produce value-added chemicals.

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What is the context of this research?

The best way to prevent microplastics is to keep plastics out of the environment entirely, or to provide an incentive to remove plastics from the ocean before they break down into microplastics. By converting ocean plastic into value-added chemicals, ocean and water-way cleanup efforts could pay for themselves. But breaking down plastics into liquid chemicals requires large amounts of energy to break apart the strong chemical bonds in the plastics. Our lab uses materials called heterogeneous catalysts to lower the energy required to break apart bonds. These catalysts are not consumed during the reaction and are easily recoverable and reusable. This project will use catalysts to break apart ocean plastics from fishing nets and floats and convert them into fuels.

What is the significance of this project?

This project will develop catalytic technologies to take real ocean plastics and convert them into fuel-range petroleum. Most plastics come from petroleum-based feedstocks, which are processed to produce monomers, which are then made into plastics. By producing petroleum-range chemicals from waste plastics, this project can close the loop, enabling the petroleum to be used for fuel or to create new products. Unlike traditional mechanical recycling, where plastic waste is melted and re-formed into lower-quality materials, this strategy offers the ability to produce pristine new materials with high value. The key element of this project is the use of multi-functional catalysts which can break down mixtures of plastics, instead of relying on physical separation which is labor-intensive.

What are the goals of the project?

The goals of this project are to develop catalytic processes which can break apart mixed ocean plastics. We have already developed technology to break apart polyethylene and polypropylene plastics, but plastics like polyvinyl choride (PVC) contain chlorine, which can poison catalytic materials and produce harmful side products like hydrochloric acid. We will investigate a two-step catalytic process, which first de-chlorinates the PVC to remove the chlorine atoms, converting in into a plastic that resembles polyethylene. We will then utilize reusable catalysts comprised of metal oxides to break apart the remaining plastic into fuel-range liquids. This project will involve catalyst synthesis, testing, and analysis of the fuels made.


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The proposed work will be carried out by two undergraduate researchers. The majority of the budget covers hourly wages for the researchers to enable them to be compensated for their work. The laboratory already has access to the plastic materials and catalytic materials but needs a designated batch reactor with temperature controller to perform the experiments without contamination from other reactions in the lab. Thus, the remaining budget is for the pressurized batch reactor. This reactor will be used to convert real ocean plastics including polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride into liquid chemicals.

Endorsed by

Great project. Prof. Rorrer will be a great leader for this!

Project Timeline

The project will start on June 10th, 2024, after finals week at the University of Washington. The first task will be to synthesize and characterize the catalytic materials, which will take approximately 1 week. In week 2, the batch reactor will be set up and calibrated. The next three weeks will involve catalytic testing of model plastic materials including polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride, and then finally real ocean plastic.

May 22, 2024

Project Launched

Jul 01, 2024

Synthesis and characterization of catalytic materials

Jul 08, 2024

Set-up and calibration of batch reactor

Jul 31, 2024

Testing of model plastic compounds (polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene)

Aug 31, 2024

Testing of model plastic compounds (polyvinyl chloride)

Meet the Team

Julie Rorrer
Julie Rorrer
Assistant Professor

Julie Rorrer

Dr. Julie Rorrer is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington. Her research is centered on sustainable heterogenous catalysis. She received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University in 2014, and her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 2019 with Professors Alexis Bell and Dean Toste. Before starting at the University of Washington, she was an Arnold O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow in chemical engineering at MIT in the Yuriy Roman-Leshkov group and a Fellow of the MIT Communication Lab. She is also the founder of the ongoing outreach initiative, ColorMePhD, a free resource communicating current PhD-level research in science and engineering to a broad audience using coloring pages.

Lab Notes

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Project Backers

  • 3Backers
  • 119%Funded
  • $5,505Total Donations
  • $1,835.00Average Donation
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