Plastic waste pollution is a problem around the world. A small percentage of the numerous kinds of plastic cannot be recycled using conventional technology, such as black plastic. Once these plastics have served their original purpose, there are alternative treatment options, in order to repurpose them.
Plastics have a high energy content, which can be converted to synthetic gas, electricity, fuels and recycled feedstocks for new plastics and other products. Making use of this abundant source of energy also ensures that less waste is sent to landfills.
Food packaging recycled to make new materials
A new study from Swansea University has determined that plastics commonly used in food packaging can be recycled in order to create new materials, such as electrical wires. This can help with reducing plastic waste in the future. The research focuses on chemical recycling, which utilises the constituent elements of the plastic in order to produce new materials.
All plastics are made from hydrogen, carbon and, sometimes, oxygen. However, the amounts and arrangements of these three elements lead to each type of plastic being unique. Being very pure and highly refined chemicals, plastics can be broken down into their elements, then bonded again in different arrangements in order to create high-value material; such as carbon nanotubes.
Dr Alvin Orbaek White from Swansea University says: “Carbon nanotubes are tiny molecules with incredible physical properties. The structure of a carbon nanotube looks a piece of chicken wire wrapped into a cylinder and when carbon is arranged like this it can conduct both heat and electricity.”
Nanotubes are used to make a wide range of items, like conductive films for touchscreen displays, antennas for 5G networks and flexible electronics fabrics that create energy, while NASA has used nanotubes to prevent electric shocks on the Juno spacecraft.
High-purity carbon electrical cables made from black plastic waste materials
The Swansea University research team tested black plastics in particular, which are often used as packaging for ready-made meals, as well as fruit and vegetable punnets. This type of plastic is commonly used, but cannot be easily recycled in many countries. Researchers removed the carbon, then constructed nanotube molecules from the bottom up using the carbon atoms. The nanotubes were then used to transmit electricity to a light bulb
“The research is significant, as carbon nanotubes can be used to solve the problem of electricity cables overheating and failing, which is responsible for about 8% of electricity lost in transmission and distribution globally,” says Dr Orbaek White.
The research team is now planning to make high-purity carbon electrical cables by utilising plastic waste materials. They are also working to improve the nanotube material’s electrical performance and increase its output. This will prepare the nanotubes for large-scale deployment in the next three years.
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