Q&A with MTU Research Award Winner David Shonnard

Very simple. Scalable. Sustainable. Our 2020 Michigan Tech Study Award winner would make
strides in recycling plastic waste.

No surprise, plastic melts when you heat it up. Finished just correct, melting down plastic
could build a circular economic climate that makes sure plastic will get recycled and reused rather
of thrown out. The specifics of melting plastic to boost a wasteful huge picture is
the latest concentration of David Shonnard’s investigation.

Shonnard is a professor of chemical engineering, the Richard and Bonnie Robbins Chair in Sustainable Use of Supplies and the director
of the Sustainable Futures Institute at Michigan Technological University. He qualified prospects interdisciplinary teams finding out biofuels
and environmentally friendly chemistry using life cycle assessments for each products and industrial processes. Shonnard also heads the Tech Ahead Sustainability and Resilience initiative. 

Offered the international scale of plastic waste — and the actuality that takeout containers, outfits,
pills and almost everything else we use plastics for are not going absent overnight — it is
uncomplicated to feel guilt or dismay at the mere sight of a cafeteria spork. But Shonnard
sees an option rather.

Plastics appear in several styles and dimensions, specifically on the molecular amount, which would make
them challenging to recycle with simplicity. With heat and time, one sort of plastic can be
turned into a further. In a reactor outfitted with a heated metal pipe that funnels
plastic vapors, Shonnard and his crew have been equipped to handle melted plastic to
make the close product or service tailor-made for reuse.

“Professor Shonnard has created a large effect more than the earlier 25 several years in the field of
sustainable engineering by investigation and education leadership. This award is a
fitting tribute to realize his contributions in the field of life cycle evaluation,
sustainability and biomass as a renewable feedstock for fuels and chemical compounds.”Pradeep Agrawal, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering

Q: What’s your investigation about?

DS: Technological innovation enables a circular move of recycling. Appropriate now, waste plastics are
a value, but they could be of worth if we can change them back into other, reusable
kinds. If they have worth, then they are much less likely to get thrown out.

This is a new investigation space for me, but it builds on many years of investigation we have completed
in biofuels. We’re taking the same processes we made use of to change woody supplies into
biofuel and we’re now making use of them to plastics. It is a pivot somewhat than a totally
new endeavor. The chemical industry is highly motivated to clear up this plastics waste
trouble and they are interested in the sort of chemical recycling technology we’re
building. I anticipate to see professional variations within five several years on a big scale
and we are also doing work with our Business of Innovation and Commercialization to produce
our own technology.

Q: How does the system get the job done? What are the problems you face?

DS: Image if you unintentionally still left a yogurt container on a sizzling stove — do not attempt
this at household! — but if the stove was on superior and you still left the room, then when you
arrived back, there likely would not be any container at all. That’s mainly because plastic vaporizes
in a sizzling, uncontrolled surroundings.

Our system will take spot in a highly managed surroundings. Squander plastic is launched
into a reactor to heat it up swiftly with no air, a system named pyrolysis, the place
we can handle the temperature and how extensive the plastic stays in there. The reactor
is pretty uncomplicated: a single metal pipe with heat used to the outside with two handle
knobs we can alter — temperature and residence time. Many chemical processes in industry
are uncomplicated like that. Tons of transferring elements can crack down, so the less difficult the better.
If you start with a big plastic molecule, heat and time will crack it down. At a
superior temp for a extensive time, that huge molecule will grow to be several modest, lightweight molecules
at a reduced temp, we can create bigger-molecular-bodyweight products. We tailor situations
of the reactor to make the material we want.

As chemical engineers, we’re accustomed to building these adjustments to processes.
This is a uncomplicated, regular technique used to a new material.

“Dr. Shonnard is regarded nationally and internationally as a chief in sustainable
engineering and innovative biofuels and bioproducts investigation … In addition, he has catalyzed
a fantastic offer of interdisciplinary investigation among scientists from several distinctive departments
at Michigan Tech, in collaboration with a host of global students.”Dave Watkins, award nominator, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Q: The place did you get the concept?

DS: I had been collaborating for several years with a professor down in Mexico at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mérida and we agreed to have one of his students appear to Michigan Tech to study
in my lab. The college student, Ulises Gracida Alvarez, arrived with support from Mexico, and
I necessary to provide him with lab house and we made the decision to collaborate on a undertaking.
I had been reading through about the plastics issues in the surroundings, so we mentioned
converting plastics by pyrolysis. He is now doing work as a postdoc at Argonne Countrywide Laboratory, continuing his investigation. He and I designed these principles collectively in actuality, he’s
a co-inventor on the creation disclosure. Now I have a new crop of graduate students
carrying on this line of investigation into waste plastics conversion.

two people stand in front of a chemistry hood
Planning plastics for the reactor is an significant action in recycling and building them
all set for reuse. 

Q: The life cycle assessment (LCA) technique looks to be an significant component. Can you
describe more?

DS: We just take a holistic technique with LCAs, which is a strategy to figure out a technology’s
environmental footprint from “cradle to grave.” In the waste plastics circular economic climate,
the LCAs are executed “cradle to cradle” mainly because of the shut-loop recycling. We
just take a systemic see and seem at the context to make the system accomplish better. This
did affect how we considered about our pyrolysis undertaking. It does make you believe about
a system as a portion of a program and the downstream works by using of your product or service. We sit in
the middle of that worth chain and we have to believe about what our upstream supplier
can present in phrases of waste plastic and what a downstream consumer wants — all though
contemplating about how the system suits in with very low environmental effect. We will need to appear
up with the most basic option achievable, to make it inexpensive, reduced emissions, more
power productive. Which is a doing work definition of sustainability.

We investigate waste plastics conversion at multiple scales, also. We start at a modest
scale to determine out unique pyrolysis situations and bit by bit scale up. With micropyrolyis
we can study in fantastic detail the chemistry that is taking place. At much larger scales, up
to one kilogram per hour of waste plastic transformed, we attempt to replicate the success
we observe at the modest scale. Undertaking this will take the technology a action nearer to real-globe
purposes.

Q: Who gains from your get the job done?

DS: More than the several years doing work on biofuel LCAs with providers, the gains to the providers
are that they study of connections between their R&D and the environmental impacts
in techniques that they could not evaluate in-home. The awareness that my team has can add
immediately to the mission of some of our husband or wife providers. It isn’t just about building
income in the latest fact — providers care about the weather and about other impacts
also. We believe in more systematic and holistic techniques than we made use of to. It has assisted
some of these providers boost their system systems and interface successfully
with regulatory agencies.

Q: What motivates you, then?

DS: As chemical engineers, typically we do not get involved in the environmental
realm as often as we should really. We often investigate from a technological point of see.
I’ve constantly questioned, how can I weave in the health and fitness of the surroundings in this article? Taking into consideration
how chemical engineering promotes sustainability motivates me. And doing work with students
is incredibly motivating — they appear in, they are novices in lab abilities, they wrestle with
creating, then they mature. Their maturation system and their successes in their professions
is fulfilling to see. It is all about the students. Of course, the technology is amazing but
with no the students it has much less indicating.

“Dr. Shonnard’s investigation and education contributions to sustainable engineering have
led to significant enhancements to the field and to culture. Not only has his investigation
been impactful, but his instructional and graduate college student mentoring has impacted hundreds
of graduates and their awareness of sustainability across his vocation.”Janet Callahan, dean of the Faculty of Engineering

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