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Scientists have found a way to convert plastics and CO2 into sustainable fuels using solar power

The research team at the University of Cambridge have been working on creating a waste recycling system for four years

(Left to right) researchers Erwin Reisner, Subhajit Bhattacharjee, Motiar Rahaman standing in a lab with their sustainable fuel reactor

From left - Erwin Reisner, Subhajit Bhattacharjee, Motiar Rahaman. The researchers say this could be a breakthrough. Image: Carolina Pulignani/ReisnerLab/University of Cambridge

Around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced globally each year, equivalent to the weight of every human being combined. But only 9 per cent of that is recycled, meaning it is not very sustainable. Now, a team of scientists may have found a gamechanging solution.

Current chemical recycling processes to convert plastic into fuels require high temperatures and are costly to run – they also produce their own set of emissions, further reducing the positive impact of the recycling process.

The rest is contained in landfills or burned, which can pollute the air, or left to clog up our rivers, beaches, and oceans because we simply have nowhere else to put it.

But, what if all of the plastic we used could be recycled for another purpose using a system powered by renewable energy?

That’s what a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge have been trying to create for the last four years and they have finally achieved it.

Now, a system to convert plastic waste and greenhouse gases into sustainable fuels at the same time is possible – and it is completely solar-powered.

The system would be able to address plastic pollution and the emitting of greenhouse gases, turning them into fuels and products that can be used for other things, ensuring plastic becomes a part of a sustainable, circular economy.

“A solar-driven technology that could help to address plastic pollution and greenhouse gases at the same time could be a game-changer in the development of a circular economy,” said Subhajit Bhattacharjee, the paper’s co-first author.

But, how does it actually work?

“It’s a solar power reactor and it has two compartments. The first compartment converts carbon dioxide to different fuels, depending on the catalyst (molecular, metallic, or biological) they put into it,” Bhattacharjee, a PhD scholar in the Department of Chemistry at St. John’s College, told The Big Issue.

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Carbon dioxide can then be converted to syngas, which can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels to generate electricity or for producing methanol and synthetic diesel, both of which can fuel cars and heat our homes.

“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,” said Dr Motiar Rahaman, the paper’s other co-first author. “Prior to this system, we didn’t have anything that could make high-value products selectively and efficiently.”

The second compartment, which uses a copper-based catalyst, converts plastic into glycolic acid – which you may have heard of from any number of beauty influencers as it is popular in skincare products and cosmetics to aid smooth skin and prevent ageing.

Following the team’s publication, senior researcher Professor Erwin Reisner said: “Developing a circular economy, where we make useful things from waste instead of throwing it into landfill, is vital if we’re going to meaningfully address the climate crisis and protect the natural world.”

a set of pipes resembling a a K-shape - the solar-powered reactor
The reactor is solar-powered and does not produce emissions of its own. (Image: Subhajit Bhattacharjee/University of Cambridge)

Bhattacharjee agrees: “If you look at the global plastic situation, most of the plastics end up in landfills or they are incinerated. These are very energy-intensive strategies and there isn’t a scalable strategy to recycle or upcycle plastics into something useful or meaningful. This would be one.”

“This system would have a major impact on the entire sustainable ecosystem that we are trying to build,” he added.

The research team have been working on plastic recycling and upcycling for the last four years, and they published their results in the academic journal Nature Synthesis earlier this month.

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Bhattacharjee said: “This is the first time an integrated system like this has been achieved.”

At the moment, this is simply a proof of concept, Bhattacharjee said. What is now needed is investment and funding to scale-up the implementation of these sustainable technologies.

“Developing these renewable and sustainable technologies, and getting meaningful investments from different sectors for that research is extremely important,” Bhattacharjee said.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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