Elanna Neppel is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. She earned her B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Iowa in 2021. The title of her fellowship application is “Zero to Hero: Zero-Valued Plastic Waste Upcycled into Kevlar®”.
The ubiquitous use of the plastic packaging material polyethylene terephthalate (PET) represents a longstanding challenge to environmental and economic sustainability. The discovery of widespread microplastics throughout the environment, in the food chain, and in the bloodstreams of humans represents a significant threat to human health. PET is widely discarded because of its low economic value and obstacles to increasing the recycling rates of PET and other plastics, despite its widespread use. To mitigate these effects, Neppel is working on developing recycling routes that add economic value, i.e., processes for upcycling waste plastics. Using inexpensive reagents and well-known chemical reactions, p-phenyleneterephthalamide (PPTA), a high-performance polyaramid widely known by the tradename Kevlar®, has been synthesized from waste PET. Neppel’s future work includes focusing on increasing yields and purities of intermediates, synthesizing higher molecular weight polymers, spinning them into high-tenacity fibers, and performing relevant life cycle and technoeconomic analyses (LCA/TEA). The highly original and novel processes she is developing may enable the green transformation of zero-valued waste plastic into anti-ballistic materials for use by police officers, first responders, and the U.S. military.