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Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics

The Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics (iCOUP), led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, is an Energy Frontier Research Center.


Plastics are not going away on their own

Plastics are durable, lightweight, and inexpensive to manufacture and mold into useful shapes, and have been adapted into nearly every sector of modern human civilization. Plastic packaging, for example, reduces energy costs in shipping compared to heavier materials and provides chemically and environmentally resistant means of storage. Once used, massive quantities of discarded plastics become waste that persists for hundreds of years in landfills or our environment. The advantageous properties of plastics, however, also create technical challenges for conventional recycling. The scientists in the Institute for the Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics (iCOUP) are discovering new chemical pathways to transform used plastics into a resource through recycling and upcycling.

Upcycling is the transformation of a used material into higher value products

Plastics contain considerable chemical value embedded in the carbon-carbon bonds that make up the long carbon chains in, for example, polyolefin-based grocery bags and milk bottles. Chemical recycling, by producing equivalent plastics from used materials to create a cyclic plastic economy, and chemical upcycling, by transforming used plastics into high value chemical products such as lubricants, surfactants, and new plastic materials that have sustainable lifecycles, could be accomplished by breaking and making bonds at targeted positions in the long chains. iCOUP scientists are establishing the foundational knowledge and creating the catalytic materials and processes needed for chemical recycling and upcycling of used plastics.

iCOUP is a collaboration of experts from all over the U.S.

We are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and we are an Energy Frontier Research Center. Our team is made up of scientists from Ames National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Cornell University, University of California Santa Barbara, Northwestern University, University of South Carolina, and the University of Illinois. We combine knowledge and expertise in polymers, catalysis, materials, spectroscopy and scattering, and theory, creating a research team uniquely qualified to meet this global challenge.

Learn more

Learn more about recent iCOUP news here, the details of our research here, and our publications here. Interested in partnering or talking with an expert? Contact us here.