The technique, detailed Monday in the journal Chem Catalyst, can be tweaked to turn plastic waste into a variety of in-demand hydrocarbon products.
Importantly, the conversion method is highly efficient, working at moderate temperatures and converting nearly 90 percent of the input material.
The technique is also fast, taking less than an hour from start to finish.
"In the recycling industry, the cost of recycling is key," lead researcher Hongfei Lin said in a news release.
"This work is a mile stone for us to advance this new technology to commercialization," said Lin, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington.
The accumulation of plastics in ecosystems across the globe remains one of the planet's most pressing environmental problems.
As larger pieces of plastic trash -- like bags, bottles and synthetic clothing -- get broken down, these tiny pieces of plastic, or microplastics, can filter into bodies of water or get blown into the atmosphere and deposited in faraway places.
When plastic is discarded instead of recycled, it doubly harms the environment.
In addition to causing direct ecological harm, the discarded plastic ensures new plastic must be generated to meet commercial demands -- and plastic production remains a carbon intensive process.
Converting plastic waste into usable products can help shrink the plastic industry's carbon footprint.
Typically, recycled plastic is simply melted and remolded, but the recycling process reduces the plastic's quality and structural integrity.
Plastic waste can also be converted into usable chemicals, but conversion methods are currently too expensive and energy intensive. As a result, just 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled in the United States.
In the lab, scientists deployed a ruthenium on carbon catalyst and a common solvent to trigger the depolymerization process and turn plastic waste into the components used to make jet fuel.
The conversion technique worked at temperatures of approximately 428 degrees Fahrenheit, much lower than temperatures used for other conversion methods.
"Before the experiment, we only speculated but didn't know if it would work," Lin said. "The result was so good."
Researchers showed that by tweaking the conversion time and temperature, or the amount of catalyst used, they were able to fine-tune the process to yield desirable plastic-derived materials.
"Depending on the market, they can tune to what product they want to generate," Lin said. "They have flexibility. The application of this efficient process may provide a promising approach for selectively producing high-value products from waste polyethylene."
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