Washington State University researchers convert plastic waste into 3D printing material

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Researchers at Washington State University have developed a new way to convert rarely recycled plastic waste into a robust 3D printing material, the school announced.

Postdoctoral researcher Yu-Chung Chang from Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering said in a university press release that the process transforms polylactic acid – commonly used to make plastic silverware and food packaging – in a strong resin.

“We found a way to immediately turn this into something stronger and better, and we hope this inspires people to recycle these things instead of just throwing them away,” Yu-Chung said. “We made stronger materials directly from waste. We think this could be a great opportunity.

About 300,000 tonnes of commonly discarded plastic are produced each year. Although the material is biodegradable and compostable, it can take up to 100 years to break down, according to WSU researchers.

“In reality, it still creates a lot of pollution,” Yu-Chung said. “We want to make sure that when we start producing [polylactic acid] at the million-ton scale, we will know how to deal with it.

The process is also simple and efficient, according to the study. The transformation is achieved by using aminoethanol to break down the plastic’s long chain of molecules into “monomers” – the simple building blocks of many plastics. This process can be completed in about two days.

“If you want to rebuild a Lego castle in a car, you have to break it down brick by brick,” Yu-Chung said. ” That’s what we did. The precision of aminoethanol reduced the PLA to a monomer, and once it becomes a monomer again, the sky is the limit because you can repolymerize it into something stronger.

After breaking down the plastic into a simpler form, the researchers reconstructed it and created a liquid resin commonly used as “ink” for 3D printers. Once printed and cured, the product would have shown equal or better mechanical and thermal properties than other commercial resins.

Researchers hope to one day apply this process to polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a popular plastic commonly used in water and soda bottles. Both types of plastic are said to have a similar chemical structure. If possible, the technique could help reduce the significant amount of plastic waste created by PET each year.

The study, led by Professor Jinwen Zhang, was published in the journal Green chemistry.

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