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Fleeing fire with the help of recycled plastic

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have discovered a way to turn plastic bottle waste into ultralight polyethylene terephthalate (PET) aerogels. These may be a game-changer for advanced applications such as heat insulation and carbon dioxide absorption.

The plastic aerogels developed by the NUS-led research team are described as ‘soft, flexible, durable, extremely light and easy to handle’. They also demonstrate superior thermal insulation and strong absorption capacity. These properties make them attractive for a wide range of applications, such as heat and sound insulation in buildings, oil spill cleaning, and as a lightweight lining for firefighter coats or carbon dioxide absorption masks that could be used during fire rescue operations and fire escape.

‘Our PET aerogels are very versatile. We can give them different surface treatments to customise them for different applications,’ says Professor Nhan Phan-Thien from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at NUS Faculty of Engineering.

For instance, when incorporated with various methyl groups  PET aerogels absorb large amounts of oil very quickly. ‘Based on our experiments, they perform up to seven times better than existing commercial sorbents and are highly suitable for oil spill cleaning,’ Nhan reports. 

‘In highly urbanised countries like Singapore, the carbon dioxide absorption masks and heat-resistant jackets made using PET aerogels can be placed alongside fire extinguishers in high-rise buildings to provide added protection to civilians when they escape from a fire,’ points out NUS Associate Professor Hai Minh Duong.

‘Masks lined with amine-reinforced PET aerogels can also benefit people living in countries such as China, where air pollution and carbon emission are major concerns,’ Duong adds. ‘Such masks can be easily produced, and can also potentially made reusable.’

The technology to produce PET aerogels was developed in collaboration with Dr Xiwen Zhang from the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

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