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IBM Researchers Develop Radical New Recycling Process for Old Plastic

IBM Research’s VolCat chemical recycling process can make the most commonly used plastic polymer in the world, PET monomer (bottom left), out of mixed/dirty post-consumer waste (top photo).

Currently, more than 272 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year around the globe, with one-quarter of that made up of PET.

To help to solve this big problem,  IBM researchers have created a new technology called VolCat, a catalytic chemical process that can turn PET, a type of plastic commonly used in food packaging and polyester clothing, into a renewable resource.

No Sorting no Washing

The device has the ability to break down fabric made of a cotton and polyester blend. The machine will separate the two materials, spinning the natural cotton fibres into a ball, and breaking down the polyester into a powder.

The machine also recycles dirty hard plastics (from bottles to containers), by breaking the items down into powder that can be used to make new plastic products. And according to a video that IBM shared on YouTube, the machine will not require any sorting or washing at all.

New Life to Old Plastic

Bob Allen, a chemistry and materials researcher for IBM who specializes in polymer materials with expertise in catalysts, told PlasticsToday that the new process that he helped to develop is akin to the depolymerization process that some companies are currently offering.

What makes our process a little different is that we perform catalytic recycling, which is extremely selective in seeking out and finding polyester material in the witches’ brew of waste material. The polyester content is then repolymerized into new PET. Because there are two molecules of ethylene glycol attached to it, it can make new PET very easily.

Allen noted that preliminary testing shows that value can be created by making new batches of PET from “very challenging mixed waste” materials. IBM’s process reportedly creates new PET that is indistinguishable from virgin PET.Once the process is finished, because our catalyst is a volatile compound and the catalyst goes away from the reaction mixture, we recover and recycle all the catalyst,” he said. “There’s no waste involved in the VolCat catalytic process.”

Takes the mess and gives you PET

The most innovative aspect of the VolCat process is that it eliminates the need for manual sorting because “the molecule does the sorting,” Allen explained.

Using the VolCat molecular sorting process, selective digestion just chews up the polyester component and makes new PET with the same properties as virgin PET. Foreign matter from the municipal curbside collection that contains dirt, labels and adhesives—just chuck it all in and let VolCat run amok on the polyester to isolate the pure monomer from that mess and make new PET. This unbelievable catalyst is completely recoverable and completely ignores all this other material.

Currently, VolCat is still in IBM’s laboratory and has not yet been commercialized. However, said Allen, “pilot discussions” are underway with several companies.

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