Researchers at Rice University are working on a project that could capture carbon dioxide emissions using plastic. Considering the adverse effects that both CO2 and plastic have on the planet, this outcome could be groundbreaking for a healthier future.
Most plastics are formed from synthetic polymers, which derive from fossil fuels. "Synthetic polymers are made up of long chains of atoms, arranged in repeating units, often much longer than those found in nature. It is the length of these chains, and the patterns in which they are arrayed, that make polymers strong, lightweight, and flexible. In other words, it's what makes them so plastic."
Plastic is so abundant throughout the United States that it has actually prompted bans and regulations due to its detrimental impact on the planet. This ample material wasn’t always so controversial though, as when it first came out it was a widely celebrated item.
John Wesley Hyatt is credited for creating the first synthetic polymer in 1869. This was a turning point for much of the world that had previously relied on natural elements such as metals, stone, wood, and horn. At the time, this invention was greatly praised for its inexpensive nature and as an alternative to harming animals for their resources, such as ivory and tusks.
Just a few decades later, in 1907, history would remember Leo Baekeland as being the creator of the first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite. As time continued and this product became more refined, its popularity grew immensely. During World War II, the production of plastic in the United States would see an increase of nearly 300%.
After the war ended, plastic consumption continued to grow until the knowledge of global warming became more mainstream in the 1960s, when plastic was first found in the ocean. This would begin to worry some individuals in the coming years as more insight into the damaging effects of plastic would be uncovered, prompting the start of the recycling movement.
Today, the mishaps of plastic are much more widely known, particularly their adverse environmental impact and ability to impact human health via bioaccumulation. Bioaccumulation is the process that works within the natural food chain. For example, a fish ingests plastic, and humans catch that fish and consume it. Well, now that plastic is inside the human body.
As a result of this knowledge, consumer demand has begun to shift away from plastic consumption, resulting in some companies pursuing alternative materials and reusable products.
This is where researchers at Rice University come into play with their recent studies of utilizing plastic to capture carbon.
Innovative in Design
The researchers James Tour, Wala Algozeeb, Paul Savas, and Zhe Yuan discovered that "heating plastic waste in the presence of potassium acetate produced particles with nanometer-scale pores that trap carbon dioxide molecules."
They took this knowledge and ran with it, eventually being able to create a carbon sorbent effectively. Their findings have even been reported in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano.
"To make the material
, waste plastic is turned into powder, mixed with potassium acetate and heated at 600 C (1,112 F) for 45 minutes to optimize the pores, most of which are about 0.7 nanometers wide. Higher temperatures led to wider pores. The process also produces a wax byproduct that can be recycled into detergents or lubricants."
The researchers see this as an opportunity to situate the product on-site at power plants to capture carbon before it is released into the atmosphere. Further, the particles are expected to be cheaper, recyclable, and durable, with the ability to hold up to 18% of their own weight in carbon dioxide.
As this announcement was only recently made at the beginning of April, the following steps are still unknown. What is known is the potential these findings have to help make the earth a healthier place. Firstly, by lowering greenhouse gasses and, secondly, by preventing plastic from ending up in landfills or wreaking havoc on wildlife.