This Scientist Figured Out How to Turn Plastic Waste Into Fuel
"The beauty of this process is that it's not very picky.”
Plastic can be maddeningly difficult to recycle. There are various kinds of plastic, all with different properties and different recycling demands.
Plastic is often contaminated by food or some other substance that has to be thoroughly cleaned away before recycling can begin. And then there’s the simple fact that the vast majority of plastic never gets sent to recycling facilities, either because people or companies neglect to or adequate facilities don’t exist.
But Dr. Moritz Kuehnel, a scientist at Swansea University in the United Kingdom, may have found a way to get around all of these problems.
Kuehnel has developed a way to turn plastic waste into hydrogen fuel, according to the BBC.
His method works in a few steps.
First, plastic is cut and roughened up to become more porous. Next, a catalyst chemical is added to the plastic before it’s put into an alkaline solution. Sunlight or a solar lamp is then shone on the mixture to generate hydrogen bubbles. Finally, those bubbles can be captured and converted into fuel, and the remaining plastic parts, now separated and cleaned, can be turned into new plastic.
The best part is that any plastic can be put through this process, including the trillions of pieces of plastic that are contaminating the world’s oceans.
"The beauty of this process is that it's not very picky,” Kuehnel said. “It can degrade all sorts of waste. Even if there is food or a bit of grease from a margarine tub, it doesn't stop the reaction, it makes it better.”
Kuehnel told the BBC that it will be a few years before the process is ready for industrial use, but its potential could be significant.
Each year, the world produces more than 380 million tons of plastic every year and 75% of this is thrown away, never to be recycled.
Up to 13 million tons of this plastic enter the world’s oceans, more than a dump truck full of waste each minute, causing great harm to marine life.
Various companies, such as Adidas, have begun to try to harvest this ocean plastic and repurpose it into consumer goods, thus eliminating virgin plastic from their supply chains.
And nonprofits such as the Ocean Cleanup are embarking on massive expeditions to rid the ocean of plastic.
Kuehnel’s procedure is potentially more significant because it generates a source of fuel that can be up to 50% cleaner than traditional fuel sources, and it doesn’t require huge investments to clean dirty plastic.