Pictured left to right: Prof. James Eagan, second year graduate student Keaton Turney, and sixth year graduate student Luis Diego Garcia Espinosa
Akron polymer professor using CO2 to make plastics more biodegradable
James Eagan, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, studies plastic sustainability with a focus on where plastic comes from and where it ends up. He recently received funding from the American Chemical Society – Petroleum Research Fund Grant to make plastics from carbon dioxide (CO2), which would make them become biodegradable.
According to Eagan, existing research tells us that 70% of all plastics are made from the same family of chemicals and are not degradable, so they last for centuries in the environment. The goal of Eagan’s lab is to develop new chemical reactions to add carbon dioxide into polymer structures used to make plastic and impart degradable properties. The end result would be a synthetic material that is inexpensive, has a low environmental impact, and is competitive in performance. Eventually this “superplastic” would be used to make a new type of plastic found in everyday items, such as water bottles and plastic bags, or any of the countless products that fill our landfills and create plastic islands in our oceans.
The science of what CO2 can do
Most people associate carbon dioxide with pollutants since CO2 emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels. Eagan and his team are sequestering the polluting gas and converting it to useful, biodegradable polymers that can be used in numerous applications such as wind turbines, vehicles, adhesives and films.
“I want to reverse the process so that we are taking CO2 and putting it back into something, and in this case, polymers and plastics,” says Eagan. “If we put more CO2 into the plastic than emitted, we can make the process carbon negative, which a very exciting possibility. In this new world, every day would be Earth Day.”
Eagan’s research began in 2019 and led to the creation of a research team of 10 graduate and undergraduate students at The University of Akron, working together in a lab in the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering’s Goodyear Polymer Center.
A team of researchers, led by UA’s Dr. James Eagan, are studying sustainability with a focus on where plastic comes from and where it ends up. Learn about their research making plastics from carbon dioxide (CO2), leading to a new, biodegradable plastic.
In addition to the benefit of using repurposed CO2 to make plastic, by incorporating CO2 the research group is making traditional olefin plastics degradable, which has never been observed before. They work with traditional monomers (the small, building blocks of polymers) used in commercial plastics called olefins. Olefins are cheap and abundant, but typically form polymers that are not degradable. Eagan’s group discovered a synthetic pathway for getting CO2 into the polyolefin chain, providing a site for biodegradation, by using a special combination of catalysts. Achieving this reaction with traditional olefin monomers is a critical step. Before this, researchers had to use a different kind of monomers like epoxides or alkynes which require a significant amount of energy to manufacture. This energy comes with the burden of increased emissions, ultimately limiting the environmental benefit they may have and increasing costs.
From left to right, the Eagan Polymer Research Lab members: Yuliana Yepes, Derek Schwarz, Keaton Turney (back), Brennan Crawford (front), Satej Joshi (back), Arsalaan Pathan (front), Gavan Lienhart (back), Parin Kaewdeewong (front), Walter Romano, and James Eagan.
“Nature solved how to manage CO2 eons ago with photosynthesis,” says Eagan. “Any farmer will tell you that growing plants takes a lot of fresh water, land, time, sunshine, fertilizer and energy. It is not always pragmatic to meet the demand of 300 million tons of plastic every year from plants alone. Direct utilization of CO2 in chemical reactions is a complementary strategy, which avoids many of these requirements.”
Bioplastics, which are plastic materials produced from renewable biomass sources like what Eagan’s lab is working on, also only define where the material came from, not necessarily how it ends up.
“Bioplastic does not mean biodegradable!” Eagan continues. “Our method both emulates nature’s photosynthesis and helps the products break down in the environment.”
Impact and applications
Many polyurethanes, such as foam cushions or protective coatings, are made from CO2, however, these materials require an energy-intensive and expensive comonomer. According to Eagan’s predictions, it will be another decade before common plastics made directly from CO2 begin to take a sizable commercial hold. Industry is a long way out from producing this material on the thousands of tons per year scale that most manufacturers operate on. As a result, niche applications, like household adhesives and films, are a likely starting point.
DID YOU KNOW?
CO2 is collected from many industrial processes and is used in a variety of applications, such as being injected back into the earth to curb carbon emissions or used to carbonate beverages or to create dry-ice. The CO2 Eagan’s group uses in their experiments could have come from a powerplant, a cement factory, or even a brewery.
Also, finding more earth-friendly ways to scale up production of CO2 is going to be a critical need, as the biggest supplier of CO2 is the burning fossil fuels which then leads to becoming a discarded waste product. Researchers will have to determine how we sustainably harvest CO2 in massive amounts. Eagan’s research has clearly demonstrated CO2’s value as feedstock for making desirable polymers.
The long-term impact when industry does take hold of this science and technology is significant.
“Many people feel powerless in the face of CO2 emissions and their long-term effects,” says Eagan. “The development industries that sequester CO2 can give hope to reversing the pollution from the industrial revolution. Polymers are essential materials for our energy, healthcare, and environmental management. Tailoring the material performance has driven polymer scientists for decades, but now there is a shift to optimizing the sustainability of these materials. By building polymers from CO2 we have a real chance at a future with negative carbon emissions!”
5 Fast Facts about James Eagan, Ph.D.
- He is originally from Austin, Texas.
- He is a recent recipient of the prestigious National Science Foundation Early CAREER Research Award.
- His favorite food is Pad Kee Mao, a spicy Thai basil dish.
- He enjoys growing tomatoes, flowers, and bonsai trees.
- He was surprised at how close UA is to expansive and beautiful national parks.
Media contact: Cristine Boyd, 330-972-6476 or email@example.com.