PhD Research Position on Optimal Pre-Processing for Sustainable Dissolution Based Recycling

Job description

Are you interested in developing future technologies for realizing a circular economy? In the framework of the recently approved European Marie Sklodowska-Curie Doctoral Network project titled: ‘SENSORS AND ECO-FRIENDLY FOOD-GRADE MATERIALS FOR A SUSTAINABLE AND SMART FOOD STORAGE AND QUALITY MONITORING (SERENADE)’, the KU Leuven Department of Mechanical Engineering together with the research units on Sustainable Chemistry (SCT) and Sustainable Materials Management (SUMAT) of the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), are looking for a motivated colleague to explore novel and optimal pre-processing and sorting routes and sustainable dissolution based recycling routes for plastics.

Description of the research topic

The objective of this PhD is the development of an innovative recycling process configuration, combining mechanical and chemical treatment steps, for selected end-of-life plastic waste materials for reuse in smart food containers. The challenges for this are big as plastic packaging is responsible for around 60% of post-consumer waste in the EU26, with currently ~173 kg of plastic waste generated per inhabitant. Therefore, the recycling of packaging material with an increasing uptake of recycled content has gained significant interest. Most recycling concepts for the end-of-life plastics are based on either (1) mechanical recycling necessitating closed loop collection systems to safeguard cleanliness and safety of the recycled material, or (2) pyrolysis to produce a bio-oil whereby the chemical identity of the initial polymers is lost, and the material is downcycled.

There is thus a need on innovative recycling concepts whereby more complex waste streams can be recycled without losing the chemical identity and functionality of the plastic materials.

In the project, the most promising end-of life streams will first be characterized, evaluated and selected, then the optimal pre-treatment by mechanical sorting will be investigated, and finally a dissolution-based approach will be developed allowing to selectively recover the polymers from the pre-treated materials. Special attention will be paid to green solvents, with lower environmental impact, as compared to the more traditional solvents like xylene or THF. Suitable solvents will be selected based on VITO’s in-house comprehensive green solvents’ database. Removal of contaminants / additives hampering reuse for the targeted application will be an important focus.

In parallel, it is the objective to asses the eco friendliness of food-grade materials and to compare recycled with the virgin polymers and polylactic acid (PLA) from a product life cycle perspective, including longevity; in the current European regulatory context; making use of the real-world polymer-containing waste materials or combinations. For this different assessment methodologies will be considered include LCC, LCA, TEA and mSEA.

Description of the vacancy

You are part of a multi-disciplinary research group and an international network of doctoral candidates under the supervision of Prof. Dr. MSc. Ing. Jef Peeters, Dr. Kathy Elst, Ir. Dirk Nelen. You will be working at KULeuven and VITO, and get access to the best of both institutes!

  • You follow-up literature, patents, company releases, conferences, etc., and use the obtained information to determine the state-of-the-art and identify opportunities for novel contributions to the field.
  • You are responsible for setting up experiments for both the characterization of distinct plastic material streams and for dissolution based plastic recycling comparing different solvents
  • You perform environmental assessments building on the data acquired from empirical material characterization and dissolution based recycling experiments
  • You guide Master students with their thesis work.
  • You report to your senior colleagues, supervisors, and the different partners during the project meetings organized at the premises of the different project partners across Europe
  • You present your research results at international conferences.

We offer

  • We offer a varied and challenging job with an attractive salary package.
  • We offer a research position in a stimulating and multi-disciplinary environment and a solid industrial network.
  • We will support you in publishing in high-ranked international scientific journals.
  • We provide the opportunity to work towards obtaining a PhD degree within an international network.

For more information, please contact Prof. Dr. Jef Peeters, tel.: +32 16 32 25 69,, Dr. Kathy Elst +32 14 33 56 17, and Ir. Dirk Nelen tel.: +32 14 33 59 24,

Job requirements

  • You hold a Master’s in Science, (Bio-) Engineering, or equivalent degree, for which you obtained a high GPA (a cum laude level is a prerequisite).
  • You have good background in polymer science, processing and/or chemical engineering, experience with lifecycle analysis (LCA) is a plus.
  • You like to bring theory to practice by hands-on experiments.
  • You like to work in a multi-disciplinary team of international researchers and show willingness to learn/explore innovative technologies and techniques.
  • You have a creative mindset, like to take initiative, and are not afraid to address innovative ideas and new opportunities.
  • You have good communication skills (oral and written) in English or are willing to improve your language skills.
  • You have not resided and didn’t carried out main activities in Belgium for more than 12 months in the 36 months immediately before the recruitment date
  • You have to be able to start this position as of January 2024