The Grapevine

Plastic Pollution: Scientists Use ‘Black Plastics’ As New Source Of Renewable Energy

Plastic pollution has been a common problem from lands to the sea. Public officials and organizations have launched campaigns for single-use plastics and alternatives to address the growing waste.

But plastic has been a great part of the human convenience. Its unique material offers a number of benefits, from being cheap, versatile, lightweight to resistant. 

In 2015, the production of plastics across the world reached 381 million tonnes every year. That figure covers nearly the mass of two-thirds of the world population, according to non-profit Our World in Data.

Since people seem not stopping the production and use of plastics, scientists from the United Kingdom found a way to reduce plastic waste and reuse it to produce power. 

Researchers from Swansea University were able to convert black plastics, commonly used as packaging for ready meals, fruit and vegetables, into new useful materials and energy source. The team said the findings would help reduce the amount of plastic waste in the future. 

Plastics are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The researchers successfully broke down plastics and produced carbon nanotubes that can be used to create conductive films for touchscreen displays, flexible electronics fabrics and antennas for 5G networks.

"Carbon nanotubes are tiny molecules with incredible physical properties,” Alvin Orbaek White, of Swansea University, said in a statement. “The research is significant as carbon nanotubes can be used to solve the problem of electricity cables overheating and failing, which is responsible for about 8 percent of electricity is lost in transmission and distribution globally.”

Orbaek White’s team reported their findings in The Journal for Carbon Research. They plan to continue the study and enhance the nanotube's electrical performance and output. 

Such improvement would allow the new material to support large-scale deployment. The researchers hope to see the nanotubes available for public in the next three years.

“Many long range cables, which are made of metals, can't operate at full capacity because they would overheat and melt,” Orbaek White said. “This presents a real problem for a renewable energy future using wind or solar, because the best sites are far from where people live.”

Black Plastic The process by which plastics are converted to carbon nanotube material. Alvin Orbaek White/Swansea University