Plastics are one of the most widely used materials on our planet and offer a multitude of beneficial properties. We can find their applications in transport, construction, healthcare, packaging, plumbing, and almost every industry that we can think of. Moreover, plastics are easy to mass produce, making it a challenge to properly manage, dispose and recycle them. This challenge has given a need to come up with novel ways to dispose of plastics.
Researchers from Swansea University have come up with a solution to combat plastic waste by converting it into hydrogen fuel. Moritz Kuehnel of Swansea University said, “We want to use non-recyclable waste and make something useful out of it. Plastic waste contains a lot of energy and when you throw it away, you throw away energy. Even when using biodegradable plastics, and waste is not generated, the energy in that plastic is still lost”. They also added that the fuel could be used to power cars in the future.
The process of degrading plastic and converting it into hydrogen fuel is called as photoreforming. The team devised a method that uses cadmium sulfide quantum dots as photocatalysts to degrade plastic waste. The plastic and catalyst are then left in an alkaline solution that is exposed to sunlight. This results in breaking down of the plastic which then produces bubbles of hydrogen gas in the process.
Plastics that are contaminated with food or oil are almost impossible to recycle. This is because the impurities interfere during recycling. However, that is not the case with photoreforming. Kuehnel added, “One of the beauties of our photoreforming approach is that it is not very picky, it basically eats up anything that is in there.”
According to The Balance Small Business, it costs around $4,000 to recycle a tonne of plastic bags. This often leads to plastic waste being burned or thrown in a landfill to avoid expenses. The new method would be cheaper than the current recycling options, as any plastic can be used without needing to be cleaned.
While it may be years before this plastic-to-hydrogen fuel process can be implemented out on an industrial level, its development would work well with vehicles that will be fueled with hydrogen fuel.