Transforming plastic into useful chemicals

Combating pesky crustaceans and a method that could one day turn plastic into useful chemicals are two of the exciting discoveries headlining a statewide technology gathering in Eau Claire.

The seventh annual Wisconsin Science and Technology Symposium drew more than 150 researchers, entrepreneurs and students. Each year the event showcases exciting innovations – from software to lasers – and brings together the brightest minds from across the state.

More than forty students competed for cash prizes in the WiSys poster challenge including Northland College students Tyler Klein, Dylan Hudson and Louis Corcoran who took third place for their presentation on plastic depolymerization.

Klein, Hudson and Corcoran along with other students have been working with Nick Robertson, assistant professor of chemistry from Northland College, to develop a method for turning used plastic pop bottles into useful molecules for high-value products.

Their work appeared in the May issue of the journal Chemical Communications.

Plastic bottles are made out of refined petroleum, or oil. Petroleum-based polymers such as polyesters and polycarbonates make up a significant proportion of landfill waste generated globally each year.

Robertson and student researchers have essentially deconstructed the plastic pop bottles and captured useful chemical molecules from the plastic — molecules that could be reformed as the precursors to an antibiotic drug or base for personal care products.

The event is the brainchild of WiSys, the foundation that patents and manages inventions coming out of the University of Wisconsin system. Northland College teamed with UW-Eau Claire on this research and through the project forged a relationship with WiSys.

Robertson said the experience is invaluable to students, especially students from a small college. Likely Klein, Hudson and Corcoran will be attending graduate school, Robertson said. “They now have the confidence to know that they can keep up with students from much larger universities.”

The Symposium is also crucial in helping student scientists convey complicated information to lay audiences.

“Students need to be able to communicate what is happening in the lab to the public and to potential funders,” Robertson said. “This Symposium is important for helping develop that set of skills necessary for modern science.”

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