Technological watch

UK research investigates using plastic waste to produce hydrogen

Can discarded plastic be used to fuel cars in the future? According to scientists in UK’s Swansea University, yes.

A team of researcher, led by Moritz Kuehnel of the university's chemistry department are currently working on a process which can create hydrogen from plastic waste.

The process involves adding light-absorbing material to plastic wastes, then placing the waste in an alkaline solution and then exposing it to sunlight.

This creates hydrogen gas, said Kuehnel in a BBC interview, which was also published by the university's website.

Photo by Swansea University Mortiz Kuehnel The process, according to Kuehnel, could be cheaper than recycling because any kind of plastic can be used, and it does not need to be cleaned first.

“There's a lot of plastic used every year – billions of tonnes – and only a fraction of it is being recycled. We are trying to find a use for what is not being recycled,” he said in the 2 Sept interview.

Most plastic bottles are made from PET [polyethylene terephthalate] which can be recycled but often end up being burned or thrown into landfill.

"But even if you do recycle it, it needs to be very pure - so only PET, nothing else mixed in with it... and it has to be clean, no grease, no oil.

"The beauty of this process is that it's not very picky. It can degrade all sorts of waste,” the scientist added.

The hydrogen produced from the process can be used as fuel, i.e. in hydrogen cars.

The industrial-scale production of fuel through the process could however take a few years, according to Kuehnel.

The study is funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and an Austrian petrochemical company. The research has also shown how the remains of the plastic could be recycled to make new plastic.

Publication date: 05/09/2018

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2020-07-14