For the first time ever, researchers from Cambridge University have converted plastic waste and greenhouse gases into sustainable fuels using only a solar-powered reactor. Such an advancement could be particularly advantageous for the circular economy, helping the disposal of plastic and CO2 waste products to become more sustainable.
To make the solar-powered reactor, the researchers created an integrated reactor with two separate compartments, combining it with a light absorber and integrated catalysts. One of the compartments is responsible for plastic, while the other is responsible for greenhouse gases. The light absorber is used to help absorb energy from the sun, where it is converted into solar energy to power the reactor. This is particularity beneficial, as it allows the reactor to run sustainably without having to rely on fossil fuels.
Using the two compartments, the researchers found that both CO2 and plastic were effectively converted into useful compounds. The CO2 was successfully converted into syngas (a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide), giving it the potential to be produced into a sustainable liquid fuel, while they found that the plastic was converted into glycolic acid, a commonly used chemical compound within the cosmetics industry.
Moreover, the researchers also found that changing the catalyst would influence the end product, meaning that they could create a wide range of useful compounds. However, the benefits don't end there.
According to co-first author Dr Motiar Rahaman, the new solar powered reactor boasts several advantages compared to current CO2 conversion methods. First, the new reactor uses less energy than traditional methods, making it more energy-efficient. Secondly, the new reactor is more 'sustainable and efficient', allowing CO2 to be converted in an environmentally-friendly way.
“Generally, CO2 conversion requires a lot of energy, but with our system, basically you just shine a light at it, and it starts converting harmful products into something useful and sustainable,” says Dr Motiar Rahaman.
If the technology became widely used, it would help to recycle plastic and CO2 in both a safe and sustainable way, thus helping the environment in the process as less greenhouse gas emissions would be emitted into the environment.