As much as plastic has been maligned in recent years, it was actually a remarkable invention for mankind, allowing us to create unique materials for essential items and everyday necessities. The problem is that much of it ends up in landfills and oceans.
The best way to advance plastic treatment today is to create a circular economy in which resources can be reused, rather than thrown away, and a new technology developed by an international research team may be an innovative solution to address the problem.
In the October issue of the magazine Catalysis of nature, scientists from Oxford and other UK universities, in collaboration with research groups in China and Saudi Arabia, announced that they had developed a simple method to recover valuable chemicals from plastic waste so that recyclers can have a means of earn more money collecting plastic waste.
According to study, the team’s new process consists of breaking down the plastic into its molecular components by “pulverizing” it and using microwaves. Doing so can release the core components of plastic materials, including hydrogen and pure carbon, which can then form high-value products such as carbon nanotubes.
To accomplish this feat, the team used a new set of catalysts, a fancy word for materials that stimulate subsequent chemical reactions.
Typically, waste recycling teams will heat the plastic to melt it. In this case, however, the researchers first heated up their signature mixture of catalysts, propelling the conversion process forward in fascinating new ways.
Between 30 and 90 seconds later, the team discovered that their one-step rapid conversion process would produce useful chemicals. The hydrogen they obtained was 97 percent pure, providing a great potential source of clean hydrogen fuel, and the carbon they obtained was transformed into high-value carbon nanotubes, a next-generation engineering material that is incredibly durable yet lightweight. These materials, taken together, could provide a crucial source of income for recyclers.
One of the researchers, Professor Peter Edwards in the Oxford Department of Chemistry, he said, “This opens up a whole new area of catalysis in terms of selectivity and offers a potential route to the challenge of plastic waste Armageddon, particularly in developing countries as a route to the hydrogen economy, effectively allowing them to leapfrog the exclusive use of fossil fuels “.
It is important to note that the team cited here used only a small sample of plastic waste. However, they believe that the process can scale significantly on an industrial level.
(Photo credit: Nick Fewings)
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