Chirik Lab Discovers New Molecule, Possible “transformative” Route to Recyclable Plastics

Written by
Wendy Plump, Department of Chemistry
Jan. 25, 2021

As the planet’s burden of rubber and plastic rises unabated, scientists look to the promise of closed-loop recycling to reduce trash. Researchers in the Department of Chemistry have discovered a potentially game-changing new molecule – from a material known for over a century and used to make common products like tires and shoes – with vast implications for fulfilling that promise through depolymerization.

The Chirik Lab reports that during polymerization the molecule connects in a repeating sequence of squares, a previously unrealized structure that enables the process to go backwards, or depolymerize, under certain conditions. In other words, it can be “zipped up” to make a new polymer, and then “unzipped” back to a pristine monomer to be used again. The molecule could one day enable the use of plastic products many times over, unlike most of today’s plastic that can only be recycled once, if at all.

“I honestly think this work is one of the most important things to ever come out of my lab,” said Professor of Chemistry Paul Chirik of the discovery.

One collaborator simply called it “transformative.”

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