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Not just any technology

Q&A with MTU Research Award Winner David Shonnard

7 min read

Basic. Scalable. Sustainable. Our 2020 Michigan Tech Investigation Award winner makes
strides in recycling plastic squander.

No shock, plastic melts when you heat it up. Completed just correct, melting down plastic
could generate a circular overall economy that makes sure plastic will get recycled and reused as an alternative
of thrown out. The specifics of melting plastic to strengthen a wasteful massive image is
the present concentration of David Shonnard’s study.

Shonnard is a professor of chemical engineering, the Richard and Bonnie Robbins Chair in Sustainable Use of Products and the director
of the Sustainable Futures Institute at Michigan Technological University. He prospects interdisciplinary groups finding out biofuels
and eco-friendly chemistry employing lifestyle cycle assessments for each products and industrial processes. Shonnard also heads the Tech Ahead Sustainability and Resilience initiative. 

Given the world wide scale of plastic squander — and the actuality that takeout containers, apparel,
pills and almost everything else we use plastics for are not heading away overnight — it’s
easy to really feel guilt or dismay at the mere sight of a cafeteria spork. But Shonnard
sees an prospect as an alternative.

Plastics appear in many styles and sizes, especially on the molecular amount, which makes
them difficult to recycle with relieve. With heat and time, a single sort of plastic can be
turned into one more. Inside of a reactor outfitted with a heated steel pipe that funnels
plastic vapors, Shonnard and his staff have been able to control melted plastic to
make the end merchandise customized for reuse.

“Professor Shonnard has manufactured a massive influence above the previous 25 yrs in the subject of
sustainable engineering by way of study and training management. This award is a
fitting tribute to figure out his contributions in the subject of lifestyle cycle analysis,
sustainability and biomass as a renewable feedstock for fuels and substances.”Pradeep Agrawal, chair of the Division of Chemical Engineering

Q: What is your study about?

DS: Technological know-how permits a circular stream of recycling. Appropriate now, squander plastics are
a price tag, but they could be of worth if we can transform them again into other, reusable
kinds. If they have worth, then they are fewer very likely to get thrown out.

This is a new study spot for me, but it builds on a long time of study we have performed
in biofuels. We’re taking the identical processes we used to transform woody components into
biofuel and we’re now applying them to plastics. It is a pivot instead than a absolutely
new endeavor. The chemical sector is highly enthusiastic to fix this plastics squander
issue and they are fascinated in the sort of chemical recycling know-how we’re
developing. I expect to see industrial variations in just five yrs on a significant scale
and we are also performing with our Place of work of Innovation and Commercialization to establish
our personal know-how.

Q: How does the method work? What are the worries you deal with?

DS: Image if you unintentionally remaining a yogurt container on a warm stove — really don’t consider
this at residence! — but if the stove was on substantial and you remaining the space, then when you
arrived again, there very likely would not be any container at all. That is due to the fact plastic vaporizes
in a warm, uncontrolled surroundings.

Our method usually takes place in a highly managed surroundings. Waste plastic is introduced
into a reactor to heat it up immediately without having air, a method referred to as pyrolysis, exactly where
we can control the temperature and how long the plastic stays in there. The reactor
is fairly very simple: a one steel pipe with heat applied to the outdoors with two control
knobs we can modify — temperature and residence time. Lots of chemical processes in sector
are very simple like that. A lot of going parts can crack down, so the less complicated the much better.
If you commence with a significant plastic molecule, heat and time will crack it down. At a
substantial temp for a long time, that massive molecule will grow to be many small, lightweight molecules
at a reduce temp, we can generate increased-molecular-fat products. We tailor situations
of the reactor to make the product we want.

As chemical engineers, we’re accustomed to earning these adjustments to processes.
This is a very simple, standard approach applied to a new product.

“Dr. Shonnard is recognized nationally and internationally as a chief in sustainable
engineering and advanced biofuels and bioproducts study … In addition, he has catalyzed
a wonderful deal of interdisciplinary study amongst scientists from many distinct departments
at Michigan Tech, in collaboration with a host of international students.”Dave Watkins, award nominator, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Q: Where by did you get the plan?

DS: I experienced been collaborating for yrs with a professor down in Mexico at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mérida and we agreed to have a single of his learners appear to Michigan Tech to research
in my lab. The pupil, Ulises Gracida Alvarez, arrived with support from Mexico, and
I desired to source him with lab space and we decided to collaborate on a challenge.
I experienced been reading through about the plastics challenges in the surroundings, so we talked about
changing plastics by way of pyrolysis. He is now performing as a postdoc at Argonne Countrywide Laboratory, continuing his study. He and I made these concepts jointly in actuality, he’s
a co-inventor on the invention disclosure. Now I have a new crop of graduate learners
carrying on this line of study into squander plastics conversion.

two people stand in front of a chemistry hood
Preparing plastics for the reactor is an critical action in recycling and earning them
ready for reuse. 

Q: The lifestyle cycle assessment (LCA) approach would seem to be an critical facet. Can you
make clear additional?

DS: We get a holistic approach with LCAs, which is a strategy to identify a technology’s
environmental footprint from “cradle to grave.” In the squander plastics circular overall economy,
the LCAs are performed “cradle to cradle” due to the fact of the shut-loop recycling. We
get a systemic see and appear at the context to make the method accomplish much better. This
did influence how we considered about our pyrolysis challenge. It does make you feel about
a method as a element of a system and the downstream utilizes of your merchandise. We sit in
the middle of that worth chain and we have to feel about what our upstream provider
can give in terms of squander plastic and what a downstream customer requirements — all when
considering about how the method matches in with small environmental influence. We have to have to appear
up with the most basic alternative possible, to make it affordable, reduce emissions, additional
electrical power effective. Which is a performing definition of sustainability.

We investigate squander plastics conversion at a number of scales, too. We commence at a small
scale to figure out distinct pyrolysis situations and slowly but surely scale up. With micropyrolyis
we can research in wonderful element the chemistry that is going on. At much larger scales, up
to 1 kilogram for every hour of squander plastic converted, we attempt to replicate the benefits
we observe at the small scale. Executing this usually takes the know-how a action nearer to authentic-earth

Q: Who added benefits from your work?

DS: Over the yrs performing on biofuel LCAs with businesses, the added benefits to the businesses
are that they learn of connections amongst their R&D and the environmental impacts
in ways that they could not assess in-household. The knowledge that my group has can lead
directly to the mission of some of our companion businesses. It isn’t just about earning
income in the present reality — businesses care about the local climate and about other impacts
too. We feel in additional systematic and holistic ways than we used to. It has helped
some of these businesses strengthen their method systems and interface efficiently
with regulatory businesses.

Q: What motivates you, then?

DS: As chemical engineers, traditionally we really don’t get included in the environmental
realm as usually as we should really. We usually investigate from a specialized issue of see.
I’ve constantly asked, how can I weave in the overall health of the surroundings right here? Thinking about
how chemical engineering encourages sustainability motivates me. And performing with learners
is really motivating — they appear in, they are novices in lab capabilities, they struggle with
producing, then they increase. Their maturation method and their successes in their careers
is satisfying to see. It is all about the learners. Of course, the know-how is interesting but
without having the learners it has fewer which means.

“Dr. Shonnard’s study and training contributions to sustainable engineering have
led to critical enhancements to the subject and to society. Not only has his study
been impactful, but his educational and graduate pupil mentoring has impacted hundreds
of graduates and their knowledge of sustainability across his profession.”Janet Callahan, dean of the College or university of Engineering

Michigan Technological University is a public study college, residence to additional than
seven,000 learners from 54 countries. Launched in 1885, the University offers additional than
one hundred twenty undergraduate and graduate degree plans in science and know-how, engineering,
forestry, company and economics, overall health professions, humanities, mathematics, and
social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Higher Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway
and is just a few miles from Lake Top-quality.

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