Q&A with MTU Research Award Winner David Shonnard

Straightforward. Scalable. Sustainable. Our 2020 Michigan Tech Investigation Award winner helps make strides in recycling

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

No surprise, plastic melts when you warmth it up. Finished just proper, melting down plastic
could build a round financial state that guarantees plastic receives recycled and reused alternatively
of thrown out. The details of melting plastic to improve a wasteful big image is
the current 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 applying lifetime cycle assessments for both of those solutions and industrial processes. Shonnard also heads the Tech Ahead Sustainability and Resilience initiative. 

Offered the international scale of plastic waste — and the reality that takeout containers, outfits,
capsules and anything else we use plastics for are not likely absent right away — it’s
effortless to feel guilt or dismay at the mere sight of a cafeteria spork. But Shonnard
sees an opportunity alternatively.

Plastics occur in many styles and sizes, in particular on the molecular amount, which helps make
them hard to recycle with ease. With warmth and time, a person type of plastic can be
turned into an additional. Inside a reactor outfitted with a heated steel pipe that funnels
plastic vapors, Shonnard and his crew have been capable to handle melted plastic to
make the end item personalized for reuse.

“Professor Shonnard has manufactured a massive impression above the earlier 25 several years in the area of
sustainable engineering by way of investigation and instruction leadership. This award is a
fitting tribute to identify his contributions in the area of lifetime cycle analysis,
sustainability and biomass as a renewable feedstock for fuels and chemical substances.”Pradeep Agrawal, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering

Q: What is your investigation about?

DS: Know-how permits a round move of recycling. Proper now, waste plastics are
a expense, but they could be of worth if we can transform them again into other, reusable
sorts. If they have worth, then they are fewer most likely to get thrown out.

This is a new investigation region for me, but it builds on decades of investigation we’ve finished
in biofuels. We’re using the identical processes we applied to transform woody elements into
biofuel and we’re now making use of them to plastics. It is a pivot rather than a entirely
new endeavor. The chemical market is really determined to clear up this plastics waste
issue and they are interested in the type of chemical recycling engineering we’re
producing. I hope to see commercial versions in 5 several years on a large scale
and we are also operating with our Office environment of Innovation and Commercialization to acquire
our possess engineering.

Q: How does the method perform? What are the difficulties you facial area?

DS: Image if you accidentally remaining a yogurt container on a sizzling stove — really do not check out
this at home! — but if the stove was on significant and you remaining the room, then when you
came again, there most likely wouldn’t be any container at all. That is mainly because plastic vaporizes
in a sizzling, uncontrolled natural environment.

Our method takes location in a really controlled natural environment. Waste plastic is launched
into a reactor to warmth it up speedily with out air, a method called pyrolysis, exactly where
we can handle the temperature and how extended the plastic stays in there. The reactor
is fairly basic: a solitary steel pipe with warmth applied to the outside the house with two handle
knobs we can adjust — temperature and residence time. Several chemical processes in market
are basic like that. Plenty of moving pieces can break down, so the less difficult the superior.
If you start with a large plastic molecule, warmth and time will break it down. At a
significant temp for a extended time, that big molecule will turn into many small, light-weight molecules
at a reduce temp, we can make better-molecular-weight solutions. We tailor problems
of the reactor to make the substance we want.

As chemical engineers, we’re accustomed to earning these changes to processes.
This is a basic, standard method applied to a new substance.

“Dr. Shonnard is identified nationally and internationally as a chief in sustainable
engineering and innovative biofuels and bioproducts investigation … In addition, he has catalyzed
a terrific deal of interdisciplinary investigation between scientists from many different departments
at Michigan Tech, in collaboration with a host of worldwide scholars.”Dave Watkins, award nominator, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Q: Where did you get the notion?

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 a person of his learners occur to Michigan Tech to research
in my lab. The student, Ulises Gracida Alvarez, came with guidance from Mexico, and
I wanted to provide him with lab house and we decided to collaborate on a undertaking.
I had been examining about the plastics problems in the natural environment, so we talked over
converting plastics by way of pyrolysis. He is now operating as a postdoc at Argonne Nationwide Laboratory, continuing his investigation. He and I created these concepts with each other in reality, he’s
a co-inventor on the creation disclosure. Now I have a new crop of graduate learners
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 earning them
ready for reuse. 

Q: The lifetime cycle evaluation (LCA) method appears to be an significant part. Can you
reveal additional?

DS: We get a holistic method with LCAs, which is a approach to figure out 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 closed-loop recycling. We
get a systemic see and seem at the context to make the method accomplish superior. This
did influence how we believed about our pyrolysis undertaking. It does make you believe about
a method as a portion of a method and the downstream uses of your item. We sit in
the middle of that worth chain and we have to believe about what our upstream provider
can supply in phrases of waste plastic and what a downstream shopper desires — all whilst
considering about how the method matches in with lower environmental impression. We have to have to occur
up with the most basic alternative possible, to make it inexpensive, reduce emissions, additional
energy efficient. Which is a operating definition of sustainability.

We look into waste plastics conversion at various scales, too. We start at a small
scale to determine out certain pyrolysis problems and slowly and gradually scale up. With micropyrolyis
we can research in terrific detail the chemistry that is occurring. At larger sized scales, up
to one kilogram for each hour of waste plastic converted, we attempt to copy the final results
we notice at the small scale. Accomplishing this takes the engineering a action nearer to true-planet
purposes.

Q: Who rewards from your perform?

DS: Over the several years operating on biofuel LCAs with companies, the rewards to the companies
are that they study of connections involving their R&D and the environmental impacts
in strategies that they could not evaluate in-property. The awareness that my group has can lead
immediately to the mission of some of our spouse companies. It isn’t just about earning
funds in the current truth — companies care about the local climate and about other impacts
too. We believe in additional systematic and holistic strategies than we applied to. It has aided
some of these companies improve their method systems and interface correctly
with regulatory organizations.

Q: What motivates you, then?

DS: As chemical engineers, typically we really do not get associated in the environmental
realm as generally as we must. We generally look into from a complex place of see.
I’ve generally requested, how can I weave in the well being of the natural environment here? Thinking about
how chemical engineering encourages sustainability motivates me. And operating with learners
is very motivating — they occur in, they are novices in lab techniques, they battle with
composing, then they grow. Their maturation method and their successes in their careers
is enjoyable to see. It is all about the learners. Sure, the engineering is great but
with out the learners it has fewer indicating.

“Dr. Shonnard’s investigation and instruction contributions to sustainable engineering have
led to significant enhancements to the area and to society. Not only has his investigation
been impactful, but his educational and graduate student mentoring has impacted hundreds
of graduates and their awareness of sustainability throughout his profession.”Janet Callahan, dean of the School of Engineering

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