Los Alamos National Laboratory is part of a consortium developing a technology to rapidly break down discarded plastic at the molecular level into components that can be used to create other materials, such as nylon. The year-old research and development effort has been dubbed BOTTLE. The program was launched in November.
Early research has led to identifying enzymes that can biodegrade plastic noticeably within several days, versus the several hundred years it normally would take for the material to decompose. Now the teams want to accelerate the decomposition, because breaking down the plastic in days is not nearly fast enough, lab scientist Taraka Dale said. “So what we’re shooting for is really observable changes and degradation in a matter of, ideally, hours,” said Dale, who leads the lab’s BOTTLE program. “So that you can, in theory, put this in an industrial process eventually.”
The process would be fairly straightforward for users, she said. A vendor would grind up plastic trash and load it with the enzymes into a tank partially filled with water. The enzymes would break down and dissolve the plastic into the liquid. They would then transform the molecules into polymers for higher-grade products, such as carpets and clothing. Dale likened it to dismantling a brick house, and instead of simply reusing the bricks, you turn them into boards for a different purpose. The company could sell the raw material to a manufacturer, Dale said. This conversion of throwaway items and scraps into higher-quality goods, such as fabrics, would be “upcycling,” she said.