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Cambridge specialists use solar power for twin recycling

Professor Erwin Reisner (left) and his team.

Cambridge University scientists have developed solar-powered chemical recycling to turn both plastic scrap and greenhouse gases into sustainable fuels.

The researchers have built a reactor running on solar energy to transform carbon dioxide (CO2) and plastics into different products that are useful in a range of industries. In tests, CO2 was converted into syngas, a key building block for sustainable liquid fuels, and plastic bottles were converted into glycolic acid, which is widely used in the cosmetics industry.

The innovative system can produce different products by changing the type of catalyst used in the reactor, according to R&D lead Professor Erwin Reisner, who also leads the Cambridge Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas). The reactor uses a light absorber based on perovskite, a promising alternative to silicon for next-generation solar cells.

The R&D team designed different catalysts which were integrated into the light absorber. By changing the catalyst, the researchers could then change the end product.

‘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,’ the researchers point out. ‘Prior to this system, we didn’t have anything that could make high-value products selectively and efficiently.’

Over the next five years, the team hopes to develop the reactor to produce more complex molecules. The researchers say that similar techniques could someday be used to develop an entirely solar-powered recycling plant.

As such, the research could prove to be a ‘game-changer’ for the circular economy. Full details have been published in the journal Nature Synthesis.

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