Scientists have been exploring ways to turn plastic grocery bags into useful products. Plastic bags are among the most common waste items found in the environment and the oceans. Many recycling facilities cannot process the bags because they are too flimsy and jam the machinery.
This has prompted some experts to find new ways of turning plastic shopping bags into higher-value products, such as batteries. The plastic is actually converted into carbon chips that are then used as anodes for lithium-ion batteries.
Single-use plastic can be a source of carbon
Many single-use plastics, such as grocery bags and water bottles, are simply discarded in a landfill after use. However, the polyethylene in these plastic items could be a source of energy-storing carbon. The abundance of plastic in landfills and the environment means that it is an inexpensive source of valuable carbon.
Researchers have tried to upcycle this polyethylene into pure carbon before, but the process was expensive and inefficient. Now, researchers are focussing on ways to turn the polyethylene plastic into useful carbon-containing materials, such as battery anodes.
How plastic is turned into carbon-containing battery anodes
The latest method for converting plastic waste into useful carbon-containing materials is to immerse the polyethylene in sulfuric acid. The plastic and acid are then sealed inside a solvothermal reactor which heats the mixture to a temperature just below the melting point of the plastic.
This heat treatment bonds the sulfonic elements to the carbon atoms of the plastic and gives the polyethylene a much higher melting temperature. The sulfonated plastic is then removed from the reactor and heated in an inert furnace at a high temperature to produce the carbon elements.
The carbon is then ground into a powder and is moulded into the required shape, such as anodes for lithium-ion batteries. Tests conducted with these batteries show that they can perform at the same level as commercial batteries. This breakthrough means that plastic waste now has a broad range of alternative uses if converted into carbon.
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