Plastic waste upcycled into membrane materials

Plastic waste can be used as a raw material for making high performance porous membranes, researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology report.

A hydrophobic microporous membrane made from plastic waste could make industrial chemical separations more environmentally friendly
A hydrophobic microporous membrane made from plastic waste could make industrial chemical separations more environmentally friendly - © 2023 KAUST; Morgan Bennett Smith

The team at KAUST said these could then be used in the chemical industry for the energy-efficient separation of complex chemical mixtures or to clean up waste streams.

Polymeric membranes could be great partners for addressing many sustainability challenges, said Malinalli Ramírez Martínez, a Ph.D. student who led the research in Suzana Nunes’ group at KAUST. Thanks to their selectively permeable porous structure, they can reduce the environmental footprint of industrial separations, help in the treatment of waste effluent and create access to fresh water, she said.

“However, traditional membrane fabrication approaches mostly use pristine fossil-based non-renewable materials, which has a negative environmental impact and contradicts the sustainability benefits,” said Ramírez Martínez.

“We wanted to take polymeric membrane sustainability one step further by replacing some of the conventional materials used for their fabrication with bio-based solvents and waste plastics, following the principles of circular economy and green chemistry.”

Polyolefin plastics make up almost half of all discarded items in plastic waste streams. “Polyolefins are very popular due to their low cost and high thermal and chemical stability,” said Ramírez Martínez. “We find them in food packaging, reusable bags, shampoo bottles, toys and many more products.”

These same properties make polyolefins attractive for producing hydrophobic microporous membranes for oil purification and other industrial purification processes.

“However, the main challenges for processing polyolefins into porous membranes are the high temperatures required to dissolve them - commonly between 140oC and 250oC - and the limited range of solvents that can be used, most of them fossil-fuel based.”

According to KAUST, two bio-based solvents can significantly improve the sustainability of this process.

“We found that terpenes - naturally abundant renewable solvents derived from non-food biomass - could dissolve polyolefins at just 130 degrees Celsius,” said Ramírez Martínez. “Secondly, using these solvents we successfully made polypropylene membranes using plastic waste from food packaging, transforming single-use plastics into high-performance materials.”

These membranes have been used in separating the water-in-oil emulsions that can be generated by certain industrial processes.

“The rejection values and oil purity we recorded were comparable to state-of-the-art membranes reported in the literature,” said Ramírez Martínez. “We consider it a great achievement to have proved that membranes prepared from plastic waste can have a competitive performance compared to those made from pristine materials.”

The research is detailed in Green Chemistry.