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Art Ragauskas holds plastic in a lab.

Ragauskas Adapts Biomass Research to Keep Plastics from Going to Waste

Art Ragauskas has cultivated a reputation as an expert in developing fuel sources from biomass, but his team’s recent efforts have found them molding plastics into new uses.

“Until recently, plastic waste was viewed as a material that need to be environmentally processed into a landfill,” said Ragauskas. “Our studies, and others, have come to demonstrate that waste plastics can be catalytically converted to valuable chemicals and materials.”

Ragauskas is the UT–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Biorefining, working out of CBE and the Center for Renewable Carbon at the UT Institute of Agriculture.

A primary element of his research has been in applying deep eutectic solvents to breaking down lignin—a key component of cellular walls of plants—to help convert these plants into a biofuel source. As it turns out, similar processes can lead to other successful results.

“We have leveraged our expertise in chemically deconstructing biomass to upcycling waste plastics,” he said. “We have a had a long history in using a thermal deconstruction platform to break down biomass polymers to low-molecular-weight compounds for biofuel and chemicals application. Over the last decade we have broadened our research to do catalytic thermal deconstruction of biomass and plastics.”

This change in direction reflects a broader understanding of thermal deconstruction of biomass and waste plastics. It uses the approach of a circular economy—increasing the ways in which products can be reusable—to reduce the waste produced by a throwaway economy. It offers exciting new applications to keep these materials from being just fodder for the landfill.

“Upcycling municipal solid waste (MSW) provides a promising technology platform to convert waste streams to chemical feedstocks for plastics, fuels, and chemical markets,” said Ragauskas. “The project supports the college’s support of the circular economy, addressing regional challenges for treating waste plastics and rural economic development.”

This new research direction also advances areas of spectroscopic characterization of MSW, chemistry of C-C and C-O bond cleavage, green chemical engineering, and biotechnology of degrading and upcycling MSW. The investigation is conducted in laboratories in Dougherty, SERF, Plant Biotechnology, and UT–ORNL’s Joint Institute for Biological Sciences. It connects with UT students and partners with leading institutions in China and Turkey.

“Future research efforts are directed at developing a consortium of industry and governmental support to developing the scientific principles and educate future leaders in this field,” said Ragauskas.

Establishing such a wide adoption could see this molecular-level process make a dramatic impact in the environmental big picture—from a Rocky Top lab to the world stage.