"This chemistry can also be dynamic, can be reversible, and that bond can be reformed," said Zhang. "We are thinking about a different way to form the same backbone, just from different starting points."
They do this by breaking the polymer –"poly" meaning "many"– back into singular monomers, its molecules, a concept of reversible or dynamic chemistry. What's especially novel about this latest method is that it has not only created a new class of polymer material that, like Legos, are easy to build, break apart and rebuild over and over, but the method can be applied to existing, especially hard-to-recycle polymers.
These new chemical methods are also ready for commercialization and can plug and play with current industrial production."It can really benefit future design and development of plastics to not only create new polymers, but it's also very important to know how to convert, upcycle and recycle older polymers," said Zhang. "By using our new approach, we can prepare many new materials—some of which could have similar properties to the plastics in our daily life."
This advance in the closed-loop recycling of plastics is inspired by the natural world, as plants, animals and human beings alike are currently part of a planetary-level, circular system of recycling, said Zhang. "Why can't we make our materials the same way?"