A team of scientists, led by Aaron Sadow, a researcher at Ames National Laboratory, Professor of Chemistry at Iowa State University, and Director of the Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastic (iCOUP), have developed a new catalyst that transforms hydrocarbons into higher-value chemicals and materials that are more recyclable and environmentally friendly. This catalyst can convert materials such as motor oil, single-use plastic bags, water or milk bottles, caps, and even natural gas into more sustainable substances.
The new catalyst is designed to add functional groups to aliphatic hydrocarbons, which are organic compounds consisting solely of hydrogen and carbon. These hydrocarbons usually do not mix with water and form separate layers due to their lack of functional groups. By incorporating functional groups into these hydrocarbon chains, the properties of the materials can be significantly altered and made more recyclable.
“Methane in natural gas is the simplest of hydrocarbons with nothing but carbon-hydrogen (CH) bonds. Oils and polymers have chains of carbon atoms, linked by carbon-carbon (CC) bonds,” Sadow explained. Aliphatic hydrocarbons make up a lot of petroleum and refined petroleum products, such as plastics and motor oils. These materials “don’t have other functional groups, which means they are not easy to biodegrade,” Sadow said. “So, it has long been a goal in the field of catalysis to be able to take these kinds of materials and add other atoms, such as oxygen, or build new structures from these simple chemicals.”