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Idaho State University Chemists Tackle the Plastic Pollution Problem

February 13, 2023

A potential solution to the plastic pollution plaguing the planet is being developed at Idaho State University. 

Recently, Cori Jenkins, assistant professor of chemistry, and Joshua Pak, professor and chair of the chemistry department, received a $583,930 grant from the Department of Energy to look into new, less expensive, and energy-efficient methods of upcycling plastics. Specifically, Jenkins and Pak will explore how irradiating plastics with gamma radiation will make it easier to break down plastic polymers - large chains of molecules - into smaller pieces. 

“The plastics we use daily are made of polymers with various chemical structures,” said Jenkins. “Currently, many of these plastics cannot be recycled. Gamma radiation offers a unique way to break down these plastics into small molecules that can be reused to make new products.”

Researchers hope that after treating the plastics with gamma radiation, the process will create value-added products rather than simply breaking down the material into its individual components.

The Department of Energy grant will fund undergraduate and graduate students to work on the project next three years. While working on their research, students will learn about chemical synthesis, use a variety of instruments to study the degradation products, perform data analysis, and more.  

“I’m especially excited to see students getting involved in a cutting-edge research project that attempts to address one of the biggest challenges in our society today,” Pak said.

“Being a part of this research is very exciting because it seeks to solve what will be one of the most important issues of my lifetime,” said Raiden Hunter, a chemistry major from San Diego, California. “This lab is seeking an alternative solution to recycle not only existing plastic waste, but also investigate chemical designs that are more capable of being reused.” 

In less than 20 years, plastic waste produced globally more than doubled from 234 million tons in 2000 to 490 million tons in 2019, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development. The OECD also found that the average person in the United States generates just over 487 pounds of plastic waste annually.  

“We can all do our part to use less plastic, but plastic waste isn't going away,” Jenkins said. “This work can tell us more about how radiation breaks down these plastics. Additionally, it could help us design future plastics with their end-of-life disposal in mind, helping create materials with circular  - or zero waste - life cycles.” 

Preliminary work on the project was funded by a Center for Advanced Energy Studies seed grant in 2021

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