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Novel catalyst for transforming polyethylene into lubricants and waxes

By Scott Jenkins |

Efficient upcycling of post-consumer plastics, such as polyethylene (PE), is a key sustainability objective. New research by a team at Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, Ill.; www.anl.gov) and Ames Laboratory (Ames, Iowa; www.ameslab.gov) has resulted in a novel catalyst material that can transform linear polyethylene into a narrow range of liquid hydrocarbons that could be used for making lubricating oils and wax intermediates for surfactants. The research could eventually create a path for generating value-added products from used polyolefins, a currently untapped resource.

The Argonne/Ames team, along with collaborators from academia, built a catalyst that consists of two-nanometer platinum particles held in place by strontium titanate (SrTiO3) nanocuboids that are an order of magnitude larger (100 nm). The SrTiO3 is similar to perovskite, and was chosen because it can remain stable under the elevated temperatures and pressures required for the reaction to break C–C bonds in the PE.

To place the platinum nanoparticles, the researchers used atomic layer deposition, a technique developed at Argonne and Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.; www.northwestern.edu) that allows precise control over the size of the nanoscale particles.

In a recently published paper in ACS Cent. Sci., the team reported the effectiveness of the catalyst for converting PE into liquid hydrocarbons in a narrow molecular-weight distribution and found that certain nanoparticle structures (higher edge-to-facet ratio) performed better. The group successfully tested the catalyst on research-grade PE and on post-consumer plastic bags at laboratory scale. A critical aspect of the catalyst is its ability to selectively break C–C bonds in longer chains in preference to shorter chains, allowing the narrow range of products without forming light hydrocarbons.

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