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Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne develops the circular economy by improving processes for reuse and recycling

From a history-making quartet of lightbulbs powered by nuclear energy to discoveries enabled by the one of brightest light sources in the Western Hemisphere to insights into the dark corners of the universe, 75 years of Argonne research have produced breakthroughs that have changed our society and made our lives safer, healthier and more prosperous. This article is part of a 75th anniversary series describing Argonne’s history of discovery, current science program and future research thrusts.

Each generation inherits the Earth with its magnificent, varied and vast — but nevertheless measurable (and thus finite) — natural resources. This means that those of us alive today have the responsibility of handing off the Earth and its precious assets to the next generation and, by implication, all those who follow. Therefore, our activities to mindfully manage our resources and our consumption are absolutely vital.

To this end, U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory scientists are seeking opportunities to contribute to a societal move from a linear economy, where goods are discarded after use, to a circular economy, where the resources in waste streams are reused far more fully than is possible today. This research addresses a challenge central to a circular economy: designing material functions and chemical processes in a way that considers both inputs and end products to enable reuse of the resources contained in waste. The laboratory seeks to further develop research capabilities in recycling, remanufacturing, recovery, reuse and redesign (collectively, re-X) and to design new materials and chemicals that are more environmentally benign.

In 2019, Argonne became home to the multi-laboratory ReCell Center, the nation’s first lithium-ion battery recycling center focused on the recovery process, i.e., using materials recycled from lithium-ion batteries in new batteries. Also in 2019, as part of another multi-institutional team, Argonne designed a catalytic method for selectively converting discarded plastics into higher-value products, such as lubricant oils and waxes.

The circular economy work builds on recently funded research in battery recycling, environmental impacts of waste plastics, carbon dioxide utilization and design of catalysts with reduced use of precious metals. Other new capabilities will include computational tools to design functional materials for manufacturing circularity while considering environmental impact; high-throughput experimental tools combined with artificial intelligence to define material creation and degradation pathways; and dedicated laboratories for polymer design and deconstruction.