Solar-Powered Reactor Recycles Plastic and Gases into Sustainable Fuels

The technology will help the transition to a sustainable and circular economy


Scientists at the University of Cambridge said they have developed a novel solar-powered reactor, which can convert plastics into commodity chemicals and greenhouse gases into sustainable fuels.

The research was carried out at the Reisner Lab, Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, under the supervision of Prof Erwin Reisner.

Motiar Rahaman, co-first author of the research, spoke to Mercom India exclusively and said that the researchers are aiming to increase the reactor and (photo)electrode size for scalable production of fuels and commodity chemicals in near future.

“Prior to this system, we didn’t have anything that could make high-value products selectively and efficiently,” Rahaman said.

Further, the researcher said that CO2 conversion usually requires a lot of energy, but the Cambridge-developed reactor makes the process very easy, by coupling solar-driven carbon dioxide conversion process with plastic reforming.

While other solar-powered recycling technologies hold promise for addressing plastic pollution and reducing greenhouse gases, they had not been combined in a single process until now.

“A solar-driven technology that could help 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.

Process of Conversion

The researchers developed an integrated reactor with a perovskite-based light absorber and two separate compartments, one for plastic, and another for greenhouse gases.

The team designed different catalysts, which were integrated into the light absorber.

By changing the catalyst, the researchers could change the end product. Tests conducted under normal temperature and pressure conditions showed that the reactor could efficiently convert PET plastic bottles and CO2 into different carbon-based fuels.

The experiment converted CO2 into synthetic gas or 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 researchers said that their reactor produced these products at a rate that is much higher than conventional photocatalytic CO2 reduction processes.

The research was supported in part by the European Union, the European Research Council, the Cambridge Trust, Hermann and Marianne Straniak Stiftung, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.

Over the next five years, the team hopes that the system can produce more complex molecules and that similar techniques are used to develop an entirely solar-powered recycling plant.

In October last year, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, IIT Mandi claimed to have successfully used microwaves to recycle polymer composites from old wind turbine blades, using a rapid, sustainable, and comparatively eco-friendly method.

Earlier in February, researchers from the Fraunhofer Center for Silicon Photovoltaics and the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy System, in partnership with Reiling GmbH, developed a solution to recycle discarded modules on an industrial scale and reuse them to produce passivated emitter and rear contact solar cell.

Image: University of Cambridge