When people think about carbon, they rarely think of it as a building block of plastics and of common items in everyday life, from headphones to clothing to car parts. Paul Chirik, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry, recently discovered a new molecule and process for chemically recycling plastics, opening the door to sequestering carbon in the things we use and managing plastic waste on a large scale.
His research team, including first author of the study Megan Mohadjer Beromi, found that the common molecule, butadiene, which is produced in mass as a byproduct of fossil fuel development and also is an abundant organic compound, could be turned into a new polymer, oligocyclobutane, referred to as the “polymers of squares.” Polymers, long chain-like molecules, are the foundation of plastics. Oligocyclobutane has properties that can not only make a hard, strong plastic, but in a rare feature, can also be chemically broken down and returned back to butadiene. The process of both creating the polymer and recovering the building block, butadiene, relies on a unique iron catalyst, which the team discovered. It is the only known trigger that enables both the creation of this new plastic base and the reversibility of the process.
In this Q&A, Chirik comments on what challenges are left to refine the chemical process and how it could be scaled, along his vision for a world in which carbon pollution is effectively managed.