Plastics are long-lasting, convenient, inexpensive, and terrible for the environment. Although recycling reduces this impact, most plastics can only be recycled a few times. Now four Colorado State University chemists have discovered a new polymer that can be infinitely recycled without intensive procedures in a laboratory or using toxic chemicals.

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The infinitely recyclable polymer is strong, heat-resistant, durable, and lightweight. Its discovery marks a major step towards materials that are sustainable and waste-free, according to Colorado State University — and could compete with polluting plastic in the future.

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Polymers are characterized by chains of chemically bonded molecules called monomers. The university said in this new research, which builds on a chemically recyclable polymer demonstrated by the laboratory of chemistry professor Eugene Chen in 2015, a monomer can be polymerized in environmentally friendly conditions: “solvent-free, at room temperature, with just a few minutes of reaction time and only a trace amount of catalyst.” The material created in this process possesses mechanical properties “that perform very much like a plastic.”

The polymer can be recycled to its original state in what the university described as mild laboratory conditions, with a catalyst. With this breakthrough, published this week in the journal Science, the scientists envision a future with green plastics that can be “simply placed in a reactor and, in chemical parlance, de-polymerized to recover their value — not possible for today’s petroleum plastics.” This would bring the material back to its chemical starting point, so it could be utilized again and again and again. Chen said in the statement, “The polymers can be chemically recycled and reused, in principle, infinitely.”

What’s next for the team? Chen emphasized this polymer technology has solely been demonstrated at the academic laboratory scale, and more research is necessary to polish the patent-pending processes of monomer and polymer production. The chemists do have a seed grant from CSU Ventures, and Chen said, “It would be our dream to see this chemically recyclable polymer technology materialize in the marketplace.”

+ Colorado State University

+ Science

Images via Colorado State University and Depositphotos