Unveiling a Game Changing Soap Production Process

The process can be used on everything from milk containers to bags.


Study, Innovation
Liquid soap derived from plastic.

(Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock.com)

There is exciting news out of Virginia Tech. Researchers have discovered a novel method for turning the most commonly used plastics into soap. Though the science behind the method is complicated, the process is not. All it requires is some heat. 

From smoke to soap
More than 60 million plastic water bottles are thrown into landfills or incinerated every day, making plastic one of the biggest issues in fighting climate change, according to Scripps News

But now, Dr Guoliang “Greg” Liu, an associate professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech, and his team have come up with a novel way to turn used plastics into something useful. The study was published in the August, 2023 issue of Science

According to a Virginia Tech news release, Liu and his team had been considering the similarities between the chemical make-up of polyethylene, one of the most commonly used plastics in the world, and fatty acids, the chemical precursor to soap. Both of these materials are made of long strings of carbon, though fatty acids have a few more atoms at the end of its chain. This means that it would theoretically be somewhat easy to turn one material into the other. However, Dr. Liu and his team could not figure out how.

The answer arrived one evening while Dr. Liu was enjoying some time outside around a campfire. He was thinking about the ways in which firewood breaks down as it is burned, from wood, to smoke, to carbon dioxide. He wondered what would happen to plastic if it were burned in a laboratory. Would it break down like firewood does? What would its smoke be made of, chemically speaking?

“If we similarly break down the synthetic polyethylene molecules but stop the process before they break all the way down to small gaseous molecules, then we should obtain short-chain, polyethylene-like molecules,” Liu said in the press release.

Liu and his team created an oven which is heated high enough at the bottom to start breaking plastics down into particles, but is cool at the top, stopping the breakdown of the plastic before it turns into a gas. What they were left with was soot-like material made of short-chain polyethylene, that is to say, a wax, that is to say, one of the base materials for making soap. The process can be used on everything from milk bottles to plastic bags to make a liquid soap.

Economically Viable
One of the main advantages of the Virginia Tech method, according to earth.com, is that it is relatively simple. All that is needed is some heat. 

This means that it is economically viable and has a minimal environmental footprint. And when it comes down to it, soap is worth more than plastic.  In some ways it is as if Liu and his team have done an act of alchemy: turning garbage into gold. 

This method could potentially be used to make other products. But for now, this new eco-friendly soap could be a real game changer on how to rid the world of plastic waste and turn it into something useful at the same time.

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