A group of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the US has demonstrated a new method to recycle or break down a form of plastic using renewable electricity.

The project was undertaken by postdoctoral associate Yuting Zhou and two professors in chemistry at the university, polymer expert Jeffrey Moore and electrochemistry expert Joaquín Rodríguez-López.

The Illinois research team’s method leverages electricity, which can be drawn from renewable sources, to recycle specifically hard-to-recycle plastic.

The electromediated process breaks down the plastic’s polymers into monomers.

The new recycling process was successfully demonstrated on small beads of pure polyoxymethylene (POM), a high-performance acetal resin, as well as on commercial products made from POM.

The researchers aim to continue exploring the capability of electrocatalysis in plastic deconstruction by experimenting with more challenging types of plastic.

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Zhou said: “We wanted to demonstrate this concept of bringing together renewable energy and a circular plastic economy.

“At least personally to me, this work is more like an encouragement to me that you’re not thinking crazy to use electricity to break down plastic. It’s possible. It’s very challenging. There are limitations. There are a lot of walls that we will hit. But it’s possible. We can use electricity to break down a real manufactured product.”

The study was financially backed by the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, an ‘Energy Innovation Hub’ funded by the US Department of Energy.

It was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Communications.