Q&A with MTU Research Award Winner David Shonnard

Maria J. Danford

Simple. Scalable. Sustainable. Our 2020 Michigan Tech Investigation Award winner will make
strides in recycling plastic waste.

No shock, plastic melts when you heat it up. Accomplished just appropriate, melting down plastic
could create a circular economic climate that ensures plastic will get recycled and reused rather
of thrown out. The particulars of melting plastic to improve a wasteful large photo is
the existing concentrate of David Shonnard’s research.

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 leads interdisciplinary teams researching biofuels
and inexperienced chemistry making use of everyday living cycle assessments for both of those products and solutions and industrial processes. Shonnard also heads the Tech Forward Sustainability and Resilience initiative. 

Presented the world scale of plastic waste — and the truth that takeout containers, outfits,
products and all the things else we use plastics for are not likely absent overnight — it is
straightforward to experience guilt or dismay at the mere sight of a cafeteria spork. But Shonnard
sees an chance rather.

Plastics appear in quite a few designs and dimensions, specially on the molecular stage, which will make
them tough to recycle with simplicity. With heat and time, one type of plastic can be
turned into yet another. In just a reactor outfitted with a heated steel pipe that funnels
plastic vapors, Shonnard and his team have been in a position to manage melted plastic to
make the finish product or service personalized for reuse.

“Professor Shonnard has produced a huge impact around the past 25 a long time in the discipline of
sustainable engineering through research and schooling management. This award is a
fitting tribute to understand his contributions in the discipline of everyday living cycle investigation,
sustainability and biomass as a renewable feedstock for fuels and substances.”Pradeep Agrawal, chair of the Section of Chemical Engineering

Q: What’s your research about?

DS: Technology enables a circular stream of recycling. Appropriate now, waste plastics are
a charge, but they could be of price if we can transform them back again into other, reusable
forms. If they have price, then they’re a lot less very likely to get thrown out.

This is a new research space for me, but it builds on a long time of research we’ve done
in biofuels. We’re having the same processes we used to transform woody supplies into
biofuel and we’re now implementing them to plastics. It is a pivot rather than a absolutely
new endeavor. The chemical sector is highly determined to remedy this plastics waste
issue and they’re fascinated in the type of chemical recycling technology we’re
establishing. I assume to see commercial variations inside of 5 a long time on a large scale
and we are also performing with our Office environment of Innovation and Commercialization to acquire
our own technology.

Q: How does the course of action get the job done? What are the worries you face?

DS: Photograph if you unintentionally remaining a yogurt container on a hot stove — really do not consider
this at property! — but if the stove was on high and you remaining the space, then when you
came back again, there very likely would not be any container at all. Which is simply because plastic vaporizes
in a hot, uncontrolled environment.

Our course of action will take area in a highly managed environment. Waste plastic is introduced
into a reactor to heat it up speedily without having air, a course of action known as pyrolysis, the place
we can manage the temperature and how prolonged the plastic stays in there. The reactor
is very uncomplicated: a solitary steel pipe with heat utilized to the outdoors with two manage
knobs we can alter — temperature and home time. Many chemical processes in sector
are uncomplicated like that. Loads of moving components can break down, so the simpler the greater.
If you begin with a large plastic molecule, heat and time will break it down. At a
high temp for a prolonged time, that large molecule will develop into quite a few small, lightweight molecules
at a decrease temp, we can develop increased-molecular-body weight products and solutions. We tailor disorders
of the reactor to make the substance we want.

As chemical engineers, we’re accustomed to making these adjustments to processes.
This is a uncomplicated, regular solution utilized to a new substance.

“Dr. Shonnard is regarded nationally and internationally as a chief in sustainable
engineering and state-of-the-art biofuels and bioproducts research … In addition, he has catalyzed
a great offer of interdisciplinary research amid scientists from quite a few different departments
at Michigan Tech, in collaboration with a host of global scholars.”Dave Watkins, award nominator, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Q: Where by did you get the notion?

DS: I experienced been collaborating for a long time with a professor down in Mexico at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mérida and we agreed to have one of his learners appear to Michigan Tech to examine
in my lab. The scholar, Ulises Gracida Alvarez, came with assistance from Mexico, and
I desired to source him with lab place and we made a decision to collaborate on a project.
I experienced been looking through about the plastics problems in the environment, so we reviewed
changing plastics through pyrolysis. He is now performing as a postdoc at Argonne Nationwide Laboratory, continuing his research. He and I made these ideas alongside one another in truth, he’s
a co-inventor on the invention disclosure. Now I have a new crop of graduate learners
carrying on this line of research into waste plastics conversion.

two people stand in front of a chemistry hood
Preparing plastics for the reactor is an critical step in recycling and making them
all set for reuse. 

Q: The everyday living cycle assessment (LCA) solution would seem to be an critical component. Can you
demonstrate a lot more?

DS: We consider a holistic solution with LCAs, which is a approach to figure out a technology’s
environmental footprint from “cradle to grave.” In the waste plastics circular economic climate,
the LCAs are done “cradle to cradle” simply because of the closed-loop recycling. We
consider a systemic watch and look at the context to make the course of action accomplish greater. This
did influence how we considered about our pyrolysis project. It does make you believe about
a course of action as a aspect of a method and the downstream uses of your product or service. We sit in
the middle of that price chain and we have to believe about what our upstream supplier
can give in terms of waste plastic and what a downstream shopper demands — all whilst
imagining about how the course of action suits in with small environmental impact. We will need to appear
up with the easiest option probable, to make it affordable, decrease emissions, a lot more
electricity successful. Which is a performing definition of sustainability.

We examine waste plastics conversion at multiple scales, too. We begin at a small
scale to determine out distinct pyrolysis disorders and slowly but surely scale up. With micropyrolyis
we can examine in great element the chemistry that is taking place. At much larger scales, up
to one kilogram for each hour of waste plastic transformed, we endeavor to duplicate the results
we observe at the small scale. Undertaking this will take the technology a step closer to serious-globe
applications.

Q: Who rewards from your get the job done?

DS: In excess of the a long time performing on biofuel LCAs with corporations, the rewards to the corporations
are that they master of connections in between their R&D and the environmental impacts
in strategies that they could not assess in-home. The know-how that my team has can contribute
instantly to the mission of some of our lover corporations. It isn’t just about making
cash in the existing truth — corporations care about the local weather and about other impacts
too. We believe in a lot more systematic and holistic strategies than we used to. It has helped
some of these corporations improve their course of action systems and interface correctly
with regulatory organizations.

Q: What motivates you, then?

DS: As chemical engineers, usually we really do not get associated in the environmental
realm as often as we really should. We often examine from a specialized level of watch.
I’ve constantly requested, how can I weave in the well being of the environment below? Contemplating
how chemical engineering encourages sustainability motivates me. And performing with learners
is quite motivating — they appear in, they’re novices in lab abilities, they battle with
producing, then they grow. Their maturation course of action and their successes in their occupations
is fulfilling to see. It is all about the learners. Indeed, the technology is cool but
without having the learners it has a lot less meaning.

“Dr. Shonnard’s research and schooling contributions to sustainable engineering have
led to critical developments to the discipline and to culture. Not only has his research
been impactful, but his educational and graduate scholar mentoring has impacted hundreds
of graduates and their know-how of sustainability throughout his career.”Janet Callahan, dean of the College of Engineering

Michigan Technological University is a community research college, property to a lot more than
seven,000 learners from fifty four international locations. Founded in 1885, the University presents a lot more than
a hundred and twenty undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering,
forestry, organization and economics, well being professions, humanities, mathematics, and
social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Higher Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway
and is just a couple miles from Lake Remarkable.

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