Chemists converted plastic waste into tiny soap barsChemists converted plastic waste into tiny soap bars

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Atir Naeem Qurashi

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In response to this environmental challenge, chemists are actively engaged in the pursuit of innovative methods to ‘upcycle’ plastic. This process involves transforming plastic waste into more valuable raw materials, offering a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to the prevailing issues associated with plastic disposal. This transformative approach not only holds the potential to mitigate the adverse impact of plastic on our planet but also presents an exciting prospect for a future where waste is repurposed into valuable resources.

Researchers have unveiled a method to transform used plastic into surfactants, as reported in the August 10th issue of Science. Surfactants, crucial components in various products such as lubricants, ski wax, detergents, and soap, can now be derived from recycled plastic.

To me, plastic waste basically [is] aboveground crude oil,” expresses Guoliang Liu, a chemist from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. “We don’t have to go deep into the ocean or underground to mine [it] anymore” to make valuable chemicals.

Surfactants, along with the two most commonly used types of plastic, polyethylene and polypropylene, consist of molecular chains composed of carbon atoms. However, it’s worth noting that surfactants’ chains are significantly shorter than those found in plastics, and they are terminated with clusters of water-attracting atoms.

In the process of converting plastic into surfactants, Liu and his team designed a specialized reactor. This apparatus meticulously heats and condenses plastic, transforming it into a wax with smaller carbon chains. Through the addition of groups of oxygen atoms to cap the chains of wax and treating them with an alkaline solution, the researchers successfully converted the wax into surfactant. Further enhancement involved combining the surfactant with a small amount of dye and fragrance, resulting in the creation of miniature (tiny) soap bars.

Nevertheless, the use of upcycled plastic for cleaning purposes may not become widespread in the near future. Currently, the researchers can only produce approximately half a gram of surfactant at a time. Looking ahead, Liu and his team aspire to devise a scalable process and, once achieved, collaborate with industry partners to contribute to a cleaner resolution for plastic waste.

Also Read: Addition of 400,000 new compounds to open-access materials database

Source: following are the sources for our article “Chemists converted plastic waste into tiny soap bars”.

1- Z. Xu et alChemical upcycling of polyethylene, polypropylene, and mixtures to high-value surfactantsScience. Vol. 381, August 10, 2023, p. 666. doi: 10.1126/science.adh0993.

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