Kandis Leslie Abdul-Aziz has received a prestigious Hellman Fellowship of $30,000 to support development of scalable technology to recycle plastic waste into the precursors of valuable fuels and chemicals. Abdul-Aziz is an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering in the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering at UC Riverside. The Hellman Fellows Fund, founded by the Hellman family in 1994, supports promising early career faculty research at the 10 UC campuses and four private institutions.
Upcycling plastic waste such as bottles, Styrofoam, and storage containers into high-value components would create new value streams, eliminate the environmental harm that comes from the take-make-dispose model, and make the renewable energy industry more sustainable.
“Our alternative — to convert plastic waste back to monomers — is appealing because it leads to a closed loop circular economy,” Abdul-Aziz said. “The success of this project, therefore, will represent a significant technological breakthrough, an important economic opportunity, and a drastic reduction in environmental pollution, carbon dioxide emissions, and hazardous chemical releases.”
The potential value of the products derived from recycled polymers is approximately $120 billion in the U.S. and Canada. In the coming year, Abdul-Aziz’s lab will demonstrate proof-of-concept for a new recycling process on streams of consumer-based plastics, characterize its efficiency, and produce fungible fuel additives and precursors for materials.
Similar approaches to upcycling plastic haven’t been widely successful because the large amount of required energy is expensive and unsustainable. Abdul-Aziz intends to overcome this barrier by developing new catalysts that lower the energetic barrier for depolymerization.