There’s new research on plastic that is promising a revolution for both plastic waste management and electricity transmission. Researchers from Swansea University in the UK have recently discovered a new way to recycle a specific type of plastic – black plastic – such that it can generate electricity.
The research process involved breaking the black plastic down into its constituent components (carbon, hydrogen) and then reusing individual components to generate electricity.
Per their small model, the final findings indicated that the process was possible and the experiment was a success. Research has since been made public through The Journal for Carbon Research.
With the world already suffering from plastic waste overflow issues, the experiment’s results have already sparked new hope in the belief that there is still a way plastic waste can be put to use and therefore be managed better.
The Transformation Process
There are hundreds of types of plastics in use today, each unique in chemical composition, and only a few can be recycled. The researchers from Swansea University chose black plastic, one of the many unique forms of plastic in circulation today and commonly seen in use as food packaging.
According to the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Alvin Orbaek White from the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI) of the university, the whole experiment employed carbon nanotubes as its foundation.
The carbon nanotubes were constructed from scratch using the carbon that was released after the black plastic was broken down to its constituent molecules at the start of the experiment.
“As plastics are every pure and highly refined chemical, they can be broken down into these elements and then bonded in different arrangements to make high-value materials such as carbon nanotubes,” explained Dr. Alvin about the formation process of carbon nanotubes.
Nanotubes take a major presence in this experiment, and all for a good reason. According to research, nanotubes are naturally super strong, thanks to their unique carbon to carbon bond that accords them a strength akin to that of diamonds.
The irony is that they are really small – about 80,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair, according to Dr. Alvin. The nanotubes themselves were created with extreme care to generate the best possible conductor.
During the experiment, the carbon nanotube material was then added by way of electrical wires to a model setup consisting of a light bulb, the carbon nanotube and other equipment. The experiment was considered a success when the light bulb lit up as expected.
Other Examples of Chemical Recycling
Following the success of their experiment, the researchers, led by Dr. Alvin, are already looking at further development in the form of commercial expansion by 2022.
Dr. Alvin has revealed that carbon nanotubes, when improved, can be perfect alternatives to the metals used in electrical cables today which are prone to overheating during electricity distribution over longer distances and hence fail over time.
As such, plans are already underway to further take advantage of waste plastic, especially black plastic, to create better, higher purity carbon electrical cables that are fit for more than just experiments.
The group also has plans to improve the structure and performance of their carbon nanotube material such that it can be ready for their future expansion plans when they come to fruition.
The biggest attraction to the whole project is that this would generate renewable electricity while helping with the world’s plastic waste dilemma.
Meanwhile, a number of new projects are stirring even more interest in the renewable energy sphere. The latest ones include:
1. PDK and the ability to recycle endlessly
Polydiketoenamine, commonly shortened to just PDK, is a relatively new form of plastic that can be recycled again and again after use, and into new plastics of any color or shape.
PDK, which has already caused a stir among recycling enthusiasts everywhere because of its uniqueness, was created by scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the United States Department of Energy.
Unlike many other plastics, PDK can be broken down into its constituent components and then reassembled to create a new plastic of different texture and composition without affecting its quality.
The plastic was created with the aim of developing a ‘circular plastic,’ i.e., one that can be recycled properly, that could compete with today’s ‘linear plastics’ which weren’t designed to be recycled. To create PDK, the researchers had to go down to the most basic molecules of carbon and figure out how they could be manipulated from inception.
For the researchers, the main reason for the effort was the need to create a solution that could tackle the current global problem of plastic waste overflow, which has resulted in plastics in oceans and overflowing landfills. They believe that with PDKs, plastics can be recycled instead of disposed of, and eventually reused in everyday life.
Chemistry already backs the theory. “With PDKs, the immutable bonds of conventional plastics are replaced with reversible bonds that allow the plastic to be recycled more effectively,” says Brett Helms, a staff scientist at the lab that was part of the research team.
2. Endless carbon capture and recycling
Renewable electricity from carbon nanotubes isn’t all that is on Dr. Alvin Orbaek White’s mind. As a Ser Cymru II Fellow and the recipient of a grant from the Welsh Government and the European Union Regional Development Fund for research on carbon nanotubes, his aim is to find new ways to clear the world of dangerous plastic and carbon.
As part of his continued experiment with carbon nanotubes, and together with his team, he is designing ways to economically convert plastics using this new nanotube method.
His main aim is to make sure there’s ‘no carbon left behind,’ and so he’s devised an endless capture and recycle system that traps any escaping carbon and has it recycled until less and less of it is left.
The process mainly employs chemical scrubbers for this task, which are positioned about the vent so that they capture carbon escaping through exhaust gas and trap it for further recycling.