An efficient method for upcycling waste plastics into energy

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Recycling solution

The problem with plastic recycling is one that affects many commercial industries. Polyethylene and polypropylene are found in half of all plastics produced. These two plastics are used in the packaging that keeps food fresh, sterilise materials used in medical applications, and lightweight parts that go into many of our affordable, durable goods. But, while these materials are valuable in use for their inertness, they are difficult to break down and very difficult to chemically recycle. Researchers at Oxford have developed a method to chemically recycle common waste plastics in a practical and scalable way.

The approach is a microwave-initiated catalytic method for recycling waste polyethylene and polypropylene into high-value light aromatic molecules. The use of non-metal catalysts allow for mild reaction conditions at temperatures below 350°C and inexpensive starting materials.

Microwave initiated

Crucially, the use of microwaves rapidly heats the catalyst particles themselves. The surrounding plastics remain essentially transparent to the incoming microwaves. No energy is wasted heating peripheral elements and thermal decomposition of the plastics is avoided. This results in a very high-yield reaction.

One-step process

The combination of microwave technology and affordable non-metal catalysts, allows this method to efficiently aromatise waste polyolefins to high value light aromatic molecule (BTX) in high yields (up to 85% in weight) in mild conditions. The technology does not require additional solvents or molecular hydrogen. As a result, there is little production of light gases and no intermediate products are formed.

There is significant potential for this method to be scaled up and implemented at commercial level. Additionally, further research is already underway to further develop and improve the ideal mixing rations and reaction parameters.

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