SCSU chemistry professor finds value in plastic waste | Education

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If it’s true that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, Dr. Nasrollah Hamidi took it to heart.

Hamidi, a professor in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences at South Carolina State University, has focused his research on ways to return plastics to their pre-production state, as well as ways to reuse polymer products for practical commercial applications.

“We generate plastic waste without knowing it. As soon as I’m done with it, it becomes waste,” Hamidi said, holding up a plastic water bottle. “What are we going to do with this thing once we use it?”

“When I see this kind of material, for me it is no longer waste. To me, they have value,” he said.

Originally from Iran, who earned his doctorate in polymers in Chile before coming to SC State 22 years ago, Hamidi initially focused his research on developing new plastics. After seeing the value of recycling, he changed direction.

With the support of SC State 1890 Research & Extension and in concert with graduate students and other scientists, Hamidi’s research has brought potentially game-changing successes with items as heavily consumed as plastic bottles, grocery bags plastic, PVC pipes and polystyrene packing foam.

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The results have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as the Journal of Applied Polymer Science, the Journal of Macromolecular Science and the International Journal of Research in Engineering and Science.

For example, scientists found that they could extract post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the basic material used to make plastic bottles and other containers – by dissolving the finished product. So have experiments involving polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC, which is widely used in plumbing, electrical cable insulation, flooring, and other construction applications.

“We get this material and we find a solvent for it,” Hamidi said. “We extract from this solution the original materials – the original resin with which the material was built. The result was very similar to the original material.

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As for polystyrene – the foam used for food containers, coffee cups and packaging – Hamidi’s team ground up the product and added the small pieces to the concrete. They then measured the strength of the resulting solid blocks and compared it to that of standard concrete.

“We determined it was good for doing lightweight construction,” he said. “They are not that strong, but they are good heat-insulating materials.”

Hamidi and his colleagues have also successfully found ways to convert all those plastic bags you bring home from the stores.

“We’re trying to find a way to reuse, upcycle or upcycle these plastic bags,” he said. “We saw that we could easily convert them into viable materials like lubricants.”

The professor said all research results can be applied to commercial uses once investors see the value.

“It has all the necessary mass commercial value,” he said. “We do it on the smallest scale, so in commercial use you have to scale that up and do that.”

This commercial viability is key to the long-term success of Hamidi’s work. If there is more value in recycling, reusing, or recycling waste, less of that waste will end up in landfills, oceans, rivers, and streams.

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Hamidi said only about 10% of consumer plastics used in the United States are recycled, and about half of what is collected ends up in China. Due to a glut, the market for recycled materials has slowed, so many cities have limited or completely stopped recycling.

And as an extension of his research, Hamidi thinks the plastic bags could be recycled for use in methods of extracting moisture from the air.

“The water in the atmosphere as moisture is comparable to the total amount of fresh water there is on Earth,” he said. “We want to get that moisture and convert it into fresh water.”

Bryce K. Locke