Q&A with MTU Research Award Winner David Shonnard

Victoria D. Doty

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

No surprise, plastic melts when you heat it up. Completed just correct, melting down plastic
could make a round economic system that assures plastic receives recycled and reused in its place
of thrown out. The details of melting plastic to improve a wasteful large picture is
the latest aim of David Shonnard’s investigation.

Shonnard is a professor of chemical engineering, the Richard and Bonnie Robbins Chair in Sustainable Use of Resources and the director
of the Sustainable Futures Institute at Michigan Technological University. He leads interdisciplinary teams learning biofuels
and eco-friendly chemistry utilizing existence cycle assessments for both equally goods and industrial procedures. Shonnard also heads the Tech Ahead Sustainability and Resilience initiative. 

Presented the world wide scale of plastic squander — and the fact that takeout containers, dresses,
tablets and all the things else we use plastics for are not going away overnight — it’s
uncomplicated to feel guilt or dismay at the mere sight of a cafeteria spork. But Shonnard
sees an chance in its place.

Plastics occur in numerous designs and sizes, in particular on the molecular level, which will make
them tough to recycle with ease. With heat and time, 1 kind of plastic can be
turned into an additional. In a reactor outfitted with a heated steel pipe that funnels
plastic vapors, Shonnard and his team have been able to control melted plastic to
make the stop products tailored for reuse.

“Professor Shonnard has manufactured a enormous impression about the earlier 25 several years in the area of
sustainable engineering through investigation and education management. This award is a
fitting tribute to understand his contributions in the area of existence cycle evaluation,
sustainability and biomass as a renewable feedstock for fuels and substances.”Pradeep Agrawal, chair of the Office of Chemical Engineering

Q: What is your investigation about?

DS: Technologies allows a round flow of recycling. Proper now, squander plastics are
a cost, but they could be of price if we can convert them back again into other, reusable
varieties. If they have price, then they’re significantly less likely to get thrown out.

This is a new investigation region for me, but it builds on a long time of investigation we’ve performed
in biofuels. We’re using the exact same procedures we utilized to convert woody materials into
biofuel and we’re now applying them to plastics. It’s a pivot instead than a totally
new endeavor. The chemical industry is very determined to clear up this plastics squander
challenge and they’re interested in the kind of chemical recycling technologies we’re
establishing. I expect to see industrial variations within 5 several years on a huge scale
and we are also performing with our Office environment of Innovation and Commercialization to build
our possess technologies.

Q: How does the system do the job? What are the challenges you facial area?

DS: Photograph if you unintentionally left a yogurt container on a sizzling stove — really do not try
this at residence! — but if the stove was on substantial and you left the space, then when you
arrived back again, there likely would not be any container at all. Which is simply because plastic vaporizes
in a sizzling, uncontrolled surroundings.

Our system normally takes position in a very controlled surroundings. Squander plastic is released
into a reactor to heat it up speedily devoid of air, a system termed pyrolysis, in which
we can control the temperature and how extended the plastic stays in there. The reactor
is very uncomplicated: a single steel pipe with heat applied to the outside with two control
knobs we can adjust — temperature and home time. Several chemical procedures in industry
are uncomplicated like that. Heaps of shifting elements can crack down, so the easier the superior.
If you commence with a huge plastic molecule, heat and time will crack it down. At a
substantial temp for a extended time, that large molecule will grow to be numerous little, light-weight molecules
at a reduced temp, we can make larger-molecular-excess weight goods. We tailor ailments
of the reactor to make the product we want.

As chemical engineers, we’re accustomed to producing these adjustments to procedures.
This is a uncomplicated, standard approach applied to a new product.

“Dr. Shonnard is identified nationally and internationally as a chief in sustainable
engineering and sophisticated biofuels and bioproducts investigation … In addition, he has catalyzed
a good offer of interdisciplinary investigation between researchers from numerous distinct departments
at Michigan Tech, in collaboration with a host of international students.”Dave Watkins, award nominator, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Q: Where did you get the concept?

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 1 of his pupils occur to Michigan Tech to analyze
in my lab. The university student, Ulises Gracida Alvarez, arrived with support from Mexico, and
I desired to offer him with lab house and we determined to collaborate on a venture.
I had been examining about the plastics complications in the surroundings, so we discussed
changing plastics through pyrolysis. He is now performing as a postdoc at Argonne Countrywide Laboratory, continuing his investigation. He and I created these ideas together in fact, 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 squander plastics conversion.

two people stand in front of a chemistry hood
Preparing plastics for the reactor is an essential move in recycling and producing them
completely ready for reuse. 

Q: The existence cycle evaluation (LCA) approach appears to be an essential facet. Can you
make clear more?

DS: We choose a holistic approach with LCAs, which is a approach to identify a technology’s
environmental footprint from “cradle to grave.” In the squander plastics round economic system,
the LCAs are performed “cradle to cradle” simply because of the closed-loop recycling. We
choose a systemic check out and glimpse at the context to make the system carry out superior. This
did affect how we believed about our pyrolysis venture. It does make you think about
a system as a part of a procedure and the downstream utilizes of your products. We sit in
the middle of that price chain and we have to think about what our upstream provider
can deliver in phrases of squander plastic and what a downstream client requires — all even though
pondering about how the system suits in with reduced environmental impression. We need to have to occur
up with the most straightforward solution attainable, to make it inexpensive, reduced emissions, more
vitality efficient. Which is a performing definition of sustainability.

We look into squander plastics conversion at a number of scales, also. We commence at a little
scale to figure out certain pyrolysis ailments and slowly and gradually scale up. With micropyrolyis
we can analyze in good element the chemistry that is taking place. At more substantial scales, up
to 1 kilogram for every hour of squander plastic transformed, we attempt to copy the results
we notice at the little scale. Accomplishing this normally takes the technologies a move closer to serious-planet
purposes.

Q: Who gains from your do the job?

DS: Above the several years performing on biofuel LCAs with firms, the gains to the firms
are that they study of connections amongst their R&D and the environmental impacts
in strategies that they could not assess in-home. The knowledge that my group has can lead
instantly to the mission of some of our spouse firms. It isn’t just about producing
revenue in the latest fact — firms treatment about the weather and about other impacts
also. We think in more systematic and holistic strategies than we utilized to. It has helped
some of these firms improve their system systems and interface efficiently
with regulatory agencies.

Q: What motivates you, then?

DS: As chemical engineers, typically we really do not get included in the environmental
realm as frequently as we must. We frequently look into from a complex stage of check out.
I’ve constantly asked, how can I weave in the well being of the surroundings listed here? Thinking of
how chemical engineering encourages sustainability motivates me. And performing with pupils
is incredibly motivating — they occur in, they’re novices in lab competencies, they wrestle with
producing, then they improve. Their maturation system and their successes in their professions
is enjoyable to see. It’s all about the pupils. Indeed, the technologies is neat but
devoid of the pupils it has significantly less which means.

“Dr. Shonnard’s investigation and education contributions to sustainable engineering have
led to essential breakthroughs to the area and to society. Not only has his investigation
been impactful, but his instructional and graduate university student mentoring has impacted hundreds
of graduates and their knowledge of sustainability throughout his career.”Janet Callahan, dean of the Higher education of Engineering

Michigan Technological University is a community investigation university, residence to more than
7,000 pupils from 54 international locations. Launched in 1885, the University provides more than
120 undergraduate and graduate degree courses in science and technologies, engineering,
forestry, enterprise and economics, well being professions, humanities, arithmetic, and
social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway
and is just a handful of miles from Lake Outstanding.

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