West Coast report + Plastics Special
55recyclinginternational.com | July/August | 2019
Can black plastics transform
the energy industry?
Common types of plastic packaging can be recycled into electric
wires and cables, new research by the UK’s Swansea University has
proven. This application could significantly reduce the volume of
plastic waste in the near future.
Black plastics have become immensely
popular in the food packaging sector.
Recycling the material at end-of-life
stage is another matter entirely,
acknowledges Dr Alvin Orbaek White
of the Energy Safety Research
Institute (ESRI) at Swansea University.
His team conducted tests with con-
sumer packaging, in particular with
black plastics, to explore potential
high-quality applications. The research
focuses on chemical recycling which
uses the constituent elements of the
plastic to make new materials.
Dr Orbaek White explains that while
all plastics are made of carbon, hydro-
gen and sometimes oxygen, the
amounts and arrangements of these
three elements make each plastic
unique. As plastics are very pure and
highly refined chemicals, they can be
broken down into these elements and
then bonded in different arrange-
ments to make high value materials
such as carbon nanotubes.
Dr Orbaek White observes: ‘Carbon
nanotubes are tiny molecules with
incredible physical properties. The
structure of a carbon nanotube looks
a piece of chicken wire wrapped into
a cylinder and when carbon is
arranged like this it can conduct both
heat and electricity.’
Nanotubes can be used to make a
great variety of things, such as con-
ductive films for touchscreen displays
and flexible electronics fabrics that
create energy. ‘Other examples
include antennas for 5G networks –
while NASA has used them to prevent
electric shocks on the Juno space-
craft,’ Dr Orbaek White says.
HIGH PURITY CABLES
So what does the R&D recycling proj-
ect entail? First, the researchers
remove the carbon, after which they
construct nanotube molecules from the
bottom up using the carbon atoms.
Subsequently, they use the nanotubes
to transmit electricity to a light bulb in
a small demonstrator model.
This summer, the team started making
high purity carbon electrical cables
using plastic scrap. A main objective is
to improve the nanotube material’s
electrical performance and increase the
output. Dr Orbaek White believes the
solution will be ready for large-scale
deployment in the next three years.
NO OVERHEATING, NO FAILURE
Swansea University’s work could be
‘significant’ seeing as carbon nano-
tubes can be used to solve the prob-
lem of electricity cables overheating
and failing. ‘These issues are responsi-
ble for about 8% of electricity that is
lost in transmission and distribution
globally,’ Dr Orbaek White argues.
‘This may not seem like much; but it is
low because electricity cables are
short. It basically means that power
stations have to be close to the loca-
tion where electricity is used, otherwise
the energy is lost in transmission.’
On the other hand, many long range
cables, which are made of metals,
can’t operate at full capacity because
they would overheat and melt. ‘This
presents a real problem for a renew-
able energy future using wind or solar,
because the best sites are far from
where people live,’ Dr Orbaek White
points out. The properties of the recy-
cled cables suggest they could be a
true ‘game-changer’. If so, they could
help save the UK economy £ 9.5 bil-
lion per year.
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