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Turning discarded plastic into hydrogen to fuel cars

12 September 2018

EPSRC-funded researchers at Swansea University attracted media attention following news they found a way to turn discarded plastic into hydrogen to fuel cars.

PN 57-18 Grapes in plastic container

The news grabbed headlines in the broadcast media and print press that covered the ground-breaking process.

Dr Moritz Kuehnel, of the University's chemistry department, told the BBC how light-absorbing material is added to the plastic, before it is placed in an alkaline solution and then exposed to sunlight, which creates hydrogen.

He said this process 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.

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

Dr Kuehnel said: “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.

“Potentially you need to wash it which is very expensive, and even if you do all of that, the plastic you get isn't always as nice as virgin material.”

He added: "The beauty of this process is that it's not very picky. It can degrade all sorts of waste.

“Even if there is food or a bit of grease from a margarine tub, it doesn't stop the reaction, it makes it better.

“The process produces hydrogen gas. You can see bubbles coming off the surface. You can use it, for example, to fuel a hydrogen car.”

However, he warned that rolling out the project on an industrial level may still be years away.


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