Plastic Melding Discovery Wins 2017 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize

Two teams of researchers, from Cornell University and the University of Minnesota collaborated on the study, which led to a discovery that could transform plastics recycling. | Neil Orman/AAAS

The development of a new additive that helps meld incompatible types of plastic together, which holds important implications for recycling, has won the 2017 Newcomb Cleveland Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Association's oldest prize, supported by The Fodor Family Trust, annually recognizes the author(s) of an outstanding paper published in the Research Articles or Reports sections of the journal Science between June and the following May.

Due to their remarkable work, James Eagan and his colleagues will receive the 2017 Newcomb Cleveland Prize. The research was originally published by Science on Feb. 24, 2017.

Polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) make up a combined two-thirds of the world’s plastics, making these materials the two most abundantly-produced plastics worldwide. Despite their ubiquity, differences in their chemical structures have prevented them from being recycled together. Like oil and water, the two materials do not blend well. The research group has designed a multiblock polymer that can combine these two materials into a single plastic composite.

“There are a number of things that excite me about this work,” Geoffrey Coates, one of the paper’s corresponding authors, explained in a video for Cornell University. “One is the ability to take the world’s number one and number two polymers and find a way to make a material that is maybe better than either one of them alone.”

The additive that the researchers developed is a single polymer chain that contains multiple “blocks” of polyethylene and polypropylene. The multiblock polymer chain anchors the two plastics together. To test the additive, the scientists welded a laminated sheet of PE and a sheet of PP together by adding their new material between the two sheets. Because the new material is compatible with both PE and PP, the two plastic sheets linked up and stuck together.

Because PE and PP cannot normally mix together, the materials need to be carefully sorted and separated during the recycling process. This new, adhesive polymer could allow the plastics to blend together and lead to more efficient recycling of plastic waste.

Coates also noted that the new material that the research group has created by blending PE and PP is both rigid and mechanically tough, which could lead to innovations in the way that plastic products are designed.

“Say we can make a milk jug where we use five percent less polymer because the properties are better,” said Coates. “Think of the world’s savings on all that plastic.”

“Selecting the Newcomb Cleveland winner is exciting and very challenging given the great breadth of subjects covered in Science,” said Jeremy Berg, Science’s editor-in-chief. “This year’s winner combined clear articulation of an important problem and elegant fundamental science leading to an advance of great potential importance.”

The prize was established in 1923 with funds donated by Newcomb Cleveland of New York City and was originally called the AAAS Thousand Dollar Prize. It is now known as the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize. Along with a medal and $25,000 in prize money, the winners receive complimentary registration and reimbursed travel expenses to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting.

This year’s Newcomb Cleveland Prize Selection Committee included Berg; William DeGrado, University of California, San Francisco; Sir Richard Friend, University of Cambridge; Jeremy Nathans, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; Teri Odom, Northwestern University; Dame Linda Partridge, University College London and Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging.

The full list of researchers who contributed to the award-winning work and related Science paper “Combining polyethylene and polypropylene: Enhanced performance with PE/iPP multiblock polymers” include: James M. Eagan, Jun Xu, Rocco Di Girolamo, Christopher M. Thurber, Christopher W. Macosko, Anne M. LaPointe, Frank S. Bates, and Geoffrey W. Coates.

The Newcomb Cleveland Prize will be presented at the 184th AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 15, 2018.

[Associated image: Cornell University]