A research team at the Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University has developed a new method that could turn plastic waste into valuable chemicals by using sunlight.
According to the German news agency, in lab experiments, the research team mixed plastics with their catalyst in a solvent, which allows the solution to harness light energy and convert the dissolved plastics into formic acid, a chemical used in fuel cells to produce electricity.
The Advanced Science journal reported that the team made their catalyst from the affordable, biocompatible metal, commonly used in steel alloys for vehicles and aluminum alloys for aircraft.
When the catalyst was dissolved in a solution containing a non-biodegradable consumer plastic like polyethylene and exposed to artificial sunlight, it broke down the carbon-carbon bonds within the plastic in six days. This process turned the polyethylene into formic acid, a naturally occurring preservative and antibacterial agent, which can also be used for energy generation by power plants and in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Soo Han Sen, one of the study's authors, said: "We aimed to develop sustainable and cost-effective methods to harness sunlight to manufacture fuels and other chemical products."
The research team is now pursuing improvements to the process that may allow the breakdown of plastics to produce other useful chemical fuels, such as hydrogen gas.