Polymeric materials, both synthetic and natural, are one of the most abundant byproducts of human activity. First developed at the end of the 19th century, the exceptional properties of plastics, including excellent stability and low cost, triggered their massive production and ubiquitous use during the 20th century. Nowadays, after decades of uncontrolled disposal and nearly zero recycling, plastics are found everywhere and have become a major environmental and health problem. Thus, their recovery and recycling are a major concern. On the other hand, biopolymers such as cellulose and lignin have a huge unexploited potential to produce commodity chemicals and fuels. Currently, only a minor fraction of the produced polymers is recycled/exploited, and this involves energy-intensive and costly thermal processes. Besides, the use of these processes for the recovery of nano- and micro-plastics, which abound in all aquatic systems after decades of plastic degradation, is extremely complex. EDEPO proposes the development of a scalable electrochemical depolymerization technology based on monomeric functionalization to recycle synthetic plastics, including nano- and microplastics, and to transform biopolymers into commodity chemicals and fuels. While electrochemical processes are well established in the industry, the application of electrochemistry in biorefineries is at a very early stage of development, which offers a great opportunity to establish a strong intellectual property position in the field. EDEPO will particularly target the development of electrochemical processes at ambient temperature and pressure for the monomeric functionalization and depolymerization of pre-hydrolized polymers from municipal residues and the agricultural industry. More specifically, we will initially target the depolymerization of nano/microparticles of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to functionalized terephthalic acid, and the generation of 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (5-HMF) derivates and phenol from cellulose and lignin, respectively. All these processes, potentially driven by renewable energies, will cogenerate H2 at the cathode as an additional high-value product. While technically focusing on these three processes, during the EDEPO project, we will also determine the economic/industrial viability of other potential recycling/valorization schemes, determining the most cost-effective and thus viable precursor polymers, electrochemical routes and final products.
Amb el suport del Departament de Recerca i Universitats de la Generalitat de Catalunya.