Researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a system that can transform plastic waste and greenhouse gases into sustainable fuels and other valuable products – using only the energy from the sun.
The researchers have created a solar-powered reactor which converts carbon dioxide (CO2) and plastics into different products that are useful in a range of industries. In tests, CO2 was converted into syngas, a key building block for sustainable liquid fuels, and plastic bottles were converted into glycolic acid, which is widely used in the cosmetics industry. The system can easily be tuned to produce different products by changing the type of catalyst used in the reactor.
Converting plastics and greenhouse gases – two of the biggest threats facing the natural world – into useful and valuable products using solar energy is a significant step in the transition to a more sustainable, circular economy. The results are reported in Nature Synthesis journal.
“Converting waste into something useful using solar energy is a major goal of our research,” said Professor Erwin Reisner from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, the paper’s senior author. “Plastic pollution is a huge problem worldwide, and often, many of the plastics we throw into recycling bins are incinerated or end up in landfill.”
Prof Reisner also leads the Cambridge Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas), which aims to eliminate plastic waste by combining blue-sky thinking with practical measures.
The research was supported by the EU, the European Research Council, the Cambridge Trust, Hermann and Marianne Straniak Stiftung, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
“A solar-driven technology that could help to address plastic pollution and greenhouse gases at the same time could be a game-changer in the development of a circular economy,” said Subhajit Bhattacharjee, the paper’s co-first author.
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