The spread of microplastics throughout the environment is a growing problem with potential for long-term harm to the nation’s ecosystems. Numerous studies have quantified their presence, identified their sources, and raised concern regarding their negative impacts on human and environmental health. One major source of microplastics is wastewater, for example, laundry waste-water that contains fibers from clothing. While many larger plastic particles can be sequestered by municipal wastewater treatment facilities, a sizable number of smaller plastics are released into the environment. In this project, the investigators will develop efficient microplastic remediation strategies to capture and eliminate this source of pollution before it enters our waterways. The adhesives they will design and use to capture the microplastics will themselves be made of waste plastics. The investigators will test these different functional modifications added to these waste plastics to assess the material's ability to capture microplastics of different sizes, shapes and compositions. Once captured, the investigators plan to upcycle the various microplastics into industrially usable materials. Together, these three project goals will bolster a sustainable plastics economy with less reliance on fossil fuels as well as reduced plastic waste in rivers, lakes, and oceans. This interdisciplinary work will be supported by both NSF Engineering Directorate and the Chemistry Division.

In the course of this project, students will gain interdisciplinary research experience working on real-world, challenging sustainability problems through the perspectives of chemistry, materials science, engineering, and environmental science. Persons with disabilities (especially neurodiverse individuals) and other individuals from groups that are historically underrepresented in the sciences will be engaged in the project to promote a diverse, globally competitive workforce. Through engagement with local Michigan communities and key stakeholders in the plastics economy, the outcomes of this project will be widely shared to inform citizens and industry about the importance and practicality of a circular plastics economy.

This project aims to re-use waste superabsorbent polymers (SAPs) as adhesive material which will capture and remove microplastcs from water. These goals will be achieved by elucidating mechanisms of microplastic adsorption using simulations, fine-tuning the properties of the adhesive through synthesis, measuring clarification for adhesive-coated particles based on sedimentation, and modeling environmental, social, and economic life-cycles. The team will advance fundamental knowledge in adhesive-mediated microplastic capture (e.g., the binding, thermodynamics, kinetics, and selectivity) and elucidate how best to use these components in functional wastewater clarifiers. Emerging Technology Sustainability Assessment, a novel assessment tool that takes into consideration of environmental, economic and social aspects, is being developed for evaluating the potential costs, tradeoffs, and benefits of the new technology developments. The investigators aim to use this technology in laundry, to capture microfibers at their source, or in wastewater treatment applications.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Emerging Frontiers (EF)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Catherine Walker
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Regents of the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor
United States
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