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Coronavirus has led to a boom in single-use plastics. NREL is launching a new effort to upcycle them.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette was in Golden for the groundbreaking where he pledged the Trump administration’s support for renewable energy efforts, despite proposed budget cuts

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, NREL chief Martin Keller and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette break ground on a new research lab at NREL in Golden on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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GOLDEN — In the coronavirus era, where germs present a deadly risk, people aren’t taking any chances.  They’d rather be sterile than sorry.

The result has been a boom in single-use plastics — gloves, bottles, packaging — reversing a yearslong trend of trying to reduce waste wherever possible. Demand for flexible packaging is expected to jump by 10% this year compared with a 3% increase the year before, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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That’s why it was so fitting that the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden broke ground Wednesday on a new building for a lab dedicated to upcycling plastics, as well as next-generation batteries and energy materials. The space, formally called the Research and Innovation Laboratory, is expected to be completed by the fall of 2022. 

“When you look at the process right now of plastic bottles, the process is not really working too well,” said Dr. Martin Keller, NREL’s director. “There’s a lot of issues.”

The new lab will focus on breaking down used plastics into smaller molecules so they can be repurposed into something stronger and better.

“Now, you are creating a product that has a higher value than the original plastic bottle,” he said. 

The lab will also work on creating new polymers that are easier to degrade and, therefore, recycle, Keller said. 

MORE: NREL scientists have a plan to fight ocean plastic: Upcycle it into something valuable

The new lab — which will cost $19.5 million to build — will bolster NREL’s existing efforts on upcycling plastics, providing more lab space. 

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette flew in from Washington, D.C., for the event and was joined by Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who is facing a difficult reelection bid this year. 

The Trump administration has faced criticism for proposed cuts to NREL and other Energy Department programs focusing on renewable energy. But on Wednesday, in an interview with The Colorado Sun, Brouillette said he was confident renewable energy money will not be slashed.

“We’re committed to following the law,” Brouillette said. “Congress has been a strong supporter of not only NREL, but the entire energy efficiency program. My commitment to Sen. Gardner, the entire Energy Committee, the entire U.S. Senate who confirmed me, is to support their direction in the law. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Brouillette was also set to meet with the American Petroleum Institute in Denver as part of his Colorado swing. He said the state plays a key role in the nation’s oil and gas economy and future.

“Until we figure out a way to increase our ability to do grid-scale battery storage, renewable energy is, in some degree, dependent on the provision of natural gas and oil, which powers so much of our electricity grid today,” Brouillette said. “These things still are hand in hand.”

Brouillette said he planned to reinforce to API the need for the oil and gas industry and renewable energy efforts to complement each other moving forward.

The Energy Department on Wednesday also announced the launch of the Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems platform, which will allow NREL scientists to test new energy systems at scale. It will also help speed along the process for companies trying to test and build energy storage.

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