In observance of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we at the Department of Energy (DOE) are celebrating our long heritage of driving technological innovation to improve energy efficiency and environmental performance. A prime example is DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, announced last November and highlighted in a new video released this month.

Our lives benefit in countless ways from plastics. Lightweight, strong, and flexible, plastics preserve our food, protect our medications, and enhance transportation safety and fuel efficiency. From medical devices to building products, plastics make technology more affordable and further manufacturing breakthroughs like 3D printing.

Yet we know that disposal of plastics poses challenges, particularly when plastics are not recyclable or biodegradable. We see the evidence not only in landfills, but also in the oceans, rivers, and environment.

Through the Plastics Innovation Challenge, top researchers from the DOE, our National Laboratories, universities, and private industry are devising ways to transform discarded plastic from a waste to a resource. Targets of opportunity include making plastics more recyclable or biodegradable at the start; enabling upcycling of plastic waste to create high-market-value products; and developing new plastic collection and recycling technologies, including advanced methods of mechanical, chemical, and thermal recycling.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is leading the Plastics Innovation Challenge in collaboration with the Office of Science and other DOE programs, using a coordinated suite of funding opportunities and critical partnerships. For example, in February 2020, Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes signed a memorandum of understanding with American Chemistry Council (ACC) President and CEO Chris Jahn, providing a framework for DOE and ACC to collaborate on the development of innovative plastics recycling technologies and strengthen the domestic plastics supply chain.

As Under Secretary Menezes said at the signing ceremony, “Through this partnership with the American Chemistry Council, the Department of Energy is furthering its mission to spur American innovation and leadership in energy efficient recycling technologies and the manufacture of new plastics that are recyclable by design to reduce plastic waste in our rivers, oceans, and landfills.”

The first funding opportunity announcement (FOA) under the Plastics Innovation Challenge is “BOTTLE: Bio-Optimized Technologies to Keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment.” With up to $25 million in funding, the BOTTLE FOA will support the development of new plastics capable of efficient recyclability and improved recycling strategies to break existing plastics into chemical building blocks for use in higher-value products. To further advance the Plastics Innovation Challenge, DOE also announced the launch of the BOTTLE Consortium, which currently consists of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Other DOE programs launched under the Plastics Innovation Challenge include an Office of Science FOA to establish new Energy Frontier Research Centers, which includes a topic area on polymer upcycling. EERE’s REMADE Institute is also addressing manufacturing challenges to increase the recovery, recycling, reuse, and remanufacturing of plastics and other materials. DOE plans to make more announcements in the coming months, so stay tuned!

On Earth Day – and every day – the DOE bring technology-driven solutions to our nation’s needs. By bringing together research and development capabilities from across the country, the Plastics Innovation Challenge can position the U.S. as the world leader in the advanced plastic recycling technologies of the future.

Please visit the Plastics Innovation Challenge webpage for Challenge updates, Funding Opportunity Announcements and Notices of Intent, and key events and webinars.

Daniel R Simmons
Daniel R Simmons, former Assistant Secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
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