Catalyzing carbon and plastic recycling

Energy Solutions Forum speaker Karen Goldberg spoke about the methods her lab is pursuing to recycle carbon and plastic

An audience looks toward Karen Goldberg, who is presenting in front of a screen.

Goldberg's group looks for new ways to recycle carbon in plastics.

Catalyzing carbon and plastic recycling

Energy Solutions Forum speaker Karen Goldberg spoke about the methods her lab is pursuing to recycle carbon and plastic

Goldberg's group looks for new ways to recycle carbon in plastics.

An audience looks toward Karen Goldberg, who is presenting in front of a screen.

Goldberg's group looks for new ways to recycle carbon in plastics.

The Energy Solutions Forum kicked off the spring semester with a visit from Karen Goldberg, the Vagelos Professor of Energy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Goldberg’s talk, “Developing Alternatives to Oil as Feedstocks for Our Chemicals and Liquid Fuels,” reconciles the need to mitigate fossil fuel extraction with the reality that society will be reliant on carbon for a long time.

“I try to make things that we already make and use, but using more sustainable starting materials,” Goldberg said.

One focus of Goldberg’s research is understanding the fundamentals of recycling carbon-based products. One carbon-based product, plastic, leads to massive amounts of waste, often causing environmental degradation. Goldberg’s team is working to alter the structure of the waste plastic using chemistry.

“We’re tweaking things in the plastic to make it into a more valuable material,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg likens the process to a puzzle, where molecular interactions have to be perfectly balanced. The researchers try to optimize for the lowest financial and environmental costs to make the process more appealing to investors for commercialization.

Goldberg’s research group is also working on devising a method to chemically convert methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases in the short-term, into methanol, which can be used for fuel.

The primary goal of the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology, of which Goldberg is director, is to “address the challenge of providing the energy that society needs in a way that respects the rights and interests of future generations.”

“We have to figure out what we can do to change and move forward in a way that is going to be sustainable,” Goldberg said.

The Energy Solutions Forum is a series of talks sponsored by Mick Hitchcock that aim to inspire climate action through discussions of research about climate-friendly energy and products. The series is in its third semester and has brought speakers on topics from carbon sequestration to geothermal and nuclear power.