Scientists turn plastic into a clean source of hydrogen


by Esteban Tejedor

Posted on December 14, 2020

Scientists turn plastic into a clean source of hydrogen

Today, the 4.9 billion tons of plastic currently on earth end up in landfills or in the wild, and this number is increasing year after year, making ballast one of the most serious environmental problems of our time.

A new light appears at the end of the tunnel: chemists at the University of Oxford in the UK have found a way to turn plastic bottles, bags and other packaging into a clean source of hydrogen that has the ability to be reused as a clean fuel. It is a new approach that is faster than existing methods and requires less energy to do so.

In the new study, conducted by Peter Edwards of the University of Oxford and his team, the method for converting plastic into hydrogen is a one-step process. To find out, the team broke the plastic into small pieces by mixing them together, and then mixing the broken pieces with iron oxide and aluminium oxide catalyst. When the entire mixture was placed and heated in a microwave, the catalyst helped the plastic parts release their hydrogen quickly: in just a few seconds, 97% of the gas was released from the plastic.

The leftovers were almost entirely carbon nanotubes. Since it was the catalyst that was primarily heated, less energy was required for this method.

At this stage, the trials have focused on smaller plastic flakes, around 300 grams. Now, they will put their efforts into larger experiments. Hydrogen has a broad future ahead of it as clean energy, and it has already been used in small electric aeroplanes or cars. In fact, the hydrogen economy is estimated to move 2.13 trillion euros by 2050.

This study was published in the journal Nature Catalysis.

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