New IBM VolCat Process Breaks Down Waste Plastics into New Material

The team of researchers behind VolCat imagine the system being used at recycling and polyester manufacturing plants worldwide. 

IBM researchers have created a new technology called VolCat, a catalytic chemical process that can turn waste PET into a substance that can be fed directly back into plastic manufacturing machines in order to make new products. This announcement is part of IBM’s "5 in 5" predictions detailing five innovations that will reportedly help change our lives in the next five years.

How it works

Plastic bottles, containers and PET-based fabrics are collected, ground up and combined with a chemical catalyst in a pressure cooker set to above 200 C. With heat and a small amount of pressure, the catalyst can digest and clean the ground-up plastic, and the process separates contaminants (e.g., food residue, glue, dirt, dyes, and pigments) from material that is useable for new PET. The monomer takes the form of a white powder, which can be fed directly into a polyester reactor to make virgin-quality PET.

IBM believes that advancements like VolCat will make plastics recycling more efficient and more versatile in treating more material types than its predecessors. Compared to traditional mechanical recycling, future plastics recycling will break down both colored and clear plastics, as well as dirty and clean containers, producing a reported high-quality final product that is 100 percent recyclable.

In the case of PET recycling, IBM says the future is here. VolCat begins by heating PET and ethylene glycol in a reactor with the catalyst. After depolymerization is complete, the catalyst is recovered by distillation from the reactor using the heat of reaction. The solution is filtered, purified, and then cooled, and the solid monomer product is recovered by filtration. The recovered liquid, along with the catalyst, is then reintroduced into the depolymerization reactor in an energy-efficient cycle.

The team of researchers behind VolCat imagine the system being used at recycling and polyester manufacturing plants worldwide. Currently, polyester reactors are fed ingredients derived from petroleum. The researchers make a bold prediction that in five years, recyclers could cut out the fossil fuels, and simply attach a VolCat system to the assembly line and make new plastic directly from the old.

For consumers, future recycling advancements will mean no more sorting, rinsing and separating used containers, wrappers, or plastics. All polyester waste can go directly into the trashcan and onto the curb for pickup, and from there to a recycling facility, to be digested and transformed into new and renewable material.

“In the next half decade, plastic recycling advancements like VolCat could be adopted around the globe to combat global plastic waste. People at the grocery store buying a bottle of soda or container of strawberries will know that the plastic they’ve purchased won’t end up in the ocean, but instead will be repurposed and put back on the shelf,” the researchers stated.