A team at the University of Illinois led by Professor Steven Zimmerman has developed a method to break down polyurethane waste and turn it into other useful products.
Graduate student Ephraim Morado wanted to solve the polyurethane waste problem by chemically re-purposing the polymer. Unfortunately, polyurethanes are extremely stable, which lends to their widespread commercial use, and are made of two components that are hard to break down: isocyanates and polyols.
Polyols are problematic as they are petroleum-based and not readily degradable. To circumvent this difficulty, the team incorporated a more easily degraded and water soluble chemical unit, the acetal.
The degradation products that are formed after dissolving the polymers in a combination of trichloroacetic acid and dichloromethane at room temperature could be repurposed to new materials. As a proof of concept, Morado was able to convert elastomers, widely used in packaging and car parts, into an adhesive glue.