Solar-powered system converts plastic and greenhouse gases into sustainable fuels


Researchers have created a device that uses just solar energy to convert greenhouse gases and plastic trash into sustainable fuels and other useful items.

The device was created by researchers from the University of Cambridge, and it is the first solar-powered reactor to be able to simultaneously transform two waste streams into two chemical products.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) and polymers are transformed in the reactor into a variety of products that are helpful in a variety of sectors. In experiments, CO2 was transformed into syngas, a crucial component of sustainable liquid fuels, and plastic bottles into glycolic acid, a substance used extensively in the cosmetics sector. By altering the catalyst utilized in the reactor, the system is easily tweaked to yield different products.

In order to move toward a more sustainable, circular economy, it is crucial to transform plastics and greenhouse gases—two of the greatest dangers to the environment—into usable and valued products. The journal Nature Synthesis reports the findings.

The Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry's Professor Erwin Reisner is the senior author of the study and stated that turning garbage into something useful using solar energy is one of the main goals of his research. "Plastic pollution is a major issue across the world, and frequently a large portion of the plastics we put in recycling bins are burned or landfilled."

Reisner is also the director of the Cambridge Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas), which combines innovative ideas with doable solutions to eradicate plastic waste.

Other solar-powered "recycling" technologies have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat plastic waste, but they have not yet been integrated into a single process.

Subhajit Bhattacharjee, the paper's co-first author, stated that a solar-powered system that could reduce greenhouse emissions and plastic pollution at the same time "may be a game-changer in the creation of a circular economy."

According to co-first author Dr. Motiar Rahaman, "We also need something that is tuneable, so that you can quickly make modifications based on the ultimate output you desire."

The scientists created an integrated reactor with two distinct compartments: one for greenhouse gases and one for plastic. The reactor makes use of a perovskite-based light absorber, a viable substitute for silicon in next-generation solar cells.

The group created several catalysts that were included into the light absorber. The ultimate product might then be altered by altering the catalyst. Testing of the reactor revealed that it was capable of converting PET plastic bottles and CO2 into several carbon-based fuels, such as CO, syngas, or formate, in addition to glycolic acid, with high efficiency. The rate at which these compounds were generated by the Cambridge-developed reactor was likewise significantly higher than that of traditional photocatalytic CO2 reduction methods.

With our technology, you literally just throw a light at it and it starts converting toxic items into something helpful and sustainable, according to Rahaman. "Usually, CO2 conversion needs a lot of energy," he added. We lacked a system that could effectively and selectively produce high-value goods before this one.

We're now producing quite straightforward carbon-based chemicals, but in the future, we may be able to adjust the system to produce far more complicated products by simply switching the catalyst, according to Bhattacharjee.

The European Research Council has provided more funds to Reisner to aid in the development of their solar-powered reactor. They intend to improve the reactor during the following five years in order to manufacture more sophisticated chemicals. Similar methods, according to the researchers, might one day be utilized to create a recycling facility that is totally solar-powered.

If we're going to effectively solve the climate catastrophe and safeguard the natural world, we must develop a circular economy where garbage is turned into valuable items rather than being thrown into landfills, according to Reisner. And since the Sun is used to fuel these solutions, the process is sustainable and clean.