Q&A with MTU Research Award Winner David Shonnard

Straightforward. Scalable. Sustainable. Our 2020 Michigan Tech Research Award winner makes
strides in recycling plastic waste.

No shock, plastic melts when you heat it up. Performed just correct, melting down plastic
could generate a round financial state that assures plastic receives recycled and reused instead
of thrown out. The particulars of melting plastic to make improvements to a wasteful major photo is
the present-day aim 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 College. He qualified prospects interdisciplinary teams studying biofuels
and environmentally friendly chemistry making use of existence cycle assessments for the two products and solutions and industrial processes. Shonnard also heads the Tech Ahead Sustainability and Resilience initiative. 

Offered the world-wide scale of plastic waste — and the reality that takeout containers, clothing,
supplements and every thing else we use plastics for are not likely absent overnight — it’s
straightforward to truly feel guilt or dismay at the mere sight of a cafeteria spork. But Shonnard
sees an prospect instead.

Plastics occur in a lot of shapes and dimensions, especially on the molecular amount, which makes
them challenging to recycle with ease. With heat and time, a person sort of plastic can be
turned into one more. Within a reactor outfitted with a heated steel pipe that funnels
plastic vapors, Shonnard and his team have been capable to handle melted plastic to
make the conclusion product tailored for reuse.

“Professor Shonnard has produced a massive influence around the earlier 25 a long time in the subject of
sustainable engineering by way of investigation and education and learning leadership. This award is a
fitting tribute to figure out his contributions in the subject of existence cycle investigation,
sustainability and biomass as a renewable feedstock for fuels and chemical compounds.”Pradeep Agrawal, chair of the Office of Chemical Engineering

Q: What is your investigation about?

DS: Technological innovation allows a round move of recycling. Right now, waste plastics are
a expense, but they could be of worth if we can transform them back again into other, reusable
types. If they have worth, then they’re fewer very likely to get thrown out.

This is a new investigation region for me, but it builds on decades of investigation we’ve carried out
in biofuels. We’re getting the same processes we applied to transform woody resources into
biofuel and we’re now making use of them to plastics. It is a pivot alternatively than a wholly
new endeavor. The chemical business is remarkably motivated to resolve this plastics waste
difficulty and they’re fascinated in the sort of chemical recycling technological know-how we’re
acquiring. I anticipate to see professional versions in 5 a long time on a massive scale
and we are also doing work with our Business office of Innovation and Commercialization to create
our own technological know-how.

Q: How does the process operate? What are the difficulties you encounter?

DS: Photograph if you unintentionally left a yogurt container on a very hot stove — don’t test
this at home! — but if the stove was on significant and you left the space, then when you
arrived back again, there very likely wouldn’t be any container at all. That’s mainly because plastic vaporizes
in a very hot, uncontrolled setting.

Our process can take place in a remarkably managed setting. Waste plastic is launched
into a reactor to heat it up promptly with no air, a process called pyrolysis, in which
we can handle the temperature and how very long the plastic stays in there. The reactor
is very basic: a single steel pipe with heat utilized to the outdoors with two handle
knobs we can alter — temperature and home time. Many chemical processes in business
are basic like that. Heaps of shifting elements can break down, so the simpler the much better.
If you start with a massive plastic molecule, heat and time will break it down. At a
significant temp for a very long time, that major molecule will turn into a lot of tiny, lightweight molecules
at a lessen temp, we can make increased-molecular-excess weight products and solutions. We tailor problems
of the reactor to make the product we want.

As chemical engineers, we’re accustomed to generating these changes to processes.
This is a basic, classic solution utilized to a new product.

“Dr. Shonnard is acknowledged nationally and internationally as a chief in sustainable
engineering and state-of-the-art biofuels and bioproducts investigation … In addition, he has catalyzed
a terrific offer of interdisciplinary investigation between researchers from a lot of distinct departments
at Michigan Tech, in collaboration with a host of global students.”Dave Watkins, award nominator, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Q: Where did you get the thought?

DS: I had 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 a person of his pupils occur to Michigan Tech to examine
in my lab. The college student, Ulises Gracida Alvarez, arrived with guidance from Mexico, and
I desired to source him with lab place and we resolved to collaborate on a project.
I had been looking through about the plastics complications in the setting, so we talked about
converting plastics by way of pyrolysis. He is now doing work as a postdoc at Argonne Countrywide Laboratory, continuing his investigation. He and I made these ideas together in reality, he’s
a co-inventor on the creation disclosure. Now I have a new crop of graduate pupils
carrying on this line of investigation into waste plastics conversion.

two people stand in front of a chemistry hood
Preparing plastics for the reactor is an important move in recycling and generating them
prepared for reuse. 

Q: The existence cycle assessment (LCA) solution appears to be to be an important factor. Can you
clarify far more?

DS: We get a holistic solution with LCAs, which is a method to ascertain a technology’s
environmental footprint from “cradle to grave.” In the waste plastics round financial state,
the LCAs are performed “cradle to cradle” mainly because of the shut-loop recycling. We
get a systemic watch and glimpse at the context to make the process conduct much better. This
did influence how we considered about our pyrolysis project. It does make you imagine about
a process as a portion of a method and the downstream works by using of your product. We sit in
the middle of that worth chain and we have to imagine about what our upstream provider
can provide in terms of waste plastic and what a downstream customer wants — all though
pondering about how the process fits in with small environmental influence. We require to occur
up with the easiest answer probable, to make it economical, lessen emissions, far more
energy economical. Which is a doing work definition of sustainability.

We examine waste plastics conversion at several scales, way too. We start at a tiny
scale to figure out distinct pyrolysis problems and gradually scale up. With micropyrolyis
we can examine in terrific element the chemistry that is taking place. At larger sized scales, up
to 1 kilogram per hour of waste plastic converted, we attempt to replicate the effects
we observe at the tiny scale. Accomplishing this can take the technological know-how a move nearer to serious-world

Q: Who advantages from your operate?

DS: Around the a long time doing work on biofuel LCAs with corporations, the advantages to the corporations
are that they understand of connections amongst their R&D and the environmental impacts
in strategies that they could not evaluate in-residence. The knowledge that my team has can contribute
instantly to the mission of some of our lover corporations. It isn’t just about generating
dollars in the present-day reality — corporations treatment about the local climate and about other impacts
way too. We imagine in far more systematic and holistic strategies than we applied to. It has served
some of these corporations make improvements to their process technologies and interface properly
with regulatory agencies.

Q: What motivates you, then?

DS: As chemical engineers, traditionally we don’t get involved in the environmental
realm as typically as we need to. We typically examine from a specialized issue of watch.
I’ve generally requested, how can I weave in the wellness of the setting right here? Considering
how chemical engineering encourages sustainability motivates me. And doing work with pupils
is pretty motivating — they occur in, they’re novices in lab techniques, they wrestle with
creating, then they mature. Their maturation process and their successes in their careers
is satisfying to see. It is all about the pupils. Certainly, the technological know-how is awesome but
with no the pupils it has fewer this means.

“Dr. Shonnard’s investigation and education and learning contributions to sustainable engineering have
led to important developments to the subject and to culture. Not only has his investigation
been impactful, but his educational and graduate college student mentoring has impacted hundreds
of graduates and their knowledge of sustainability throughout his career.”Janet Callahan, dean of the Faculty of Engineering

Michigan Technological College is a general public investigation college, home to far more than
7,000 pupils from 54 nations. Started in 1885, the College offers far more than
120 undergraduate and graduate degree plans in science and technological know-how, engineering,
forestry, business and economics, wellness professions, humanities, mathematics, and
social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway
and is just a number of miles from Lake Exceptional.