Clean cars and dirty plastic go hand in hand


UK researchers use PET waste to create hydrogen fuel. Vhairi Mackintosh reports.


The fuel system from car from the movie Back To The Future might not have been so fanciful, after all.

The fuel system from car from the movie Back To The Future might not have been so fanciful, after all. 

Barry Brecheisen / Getty Images

Hydrogen cars are thought to be the ultimate green motors of the future. Except for water, they are emission-free. They are also quicker to fuel and have longer ranges than electric cars.

Now scientists from Swansea University in the UK have developed a revolutionary process that generates hydrogen fuel from plastic waste.

Swansea’s Moritz Kuehnel told the country’s national broadcaster, the BBC, that the project, which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and an Austrian petrochemical company, was initiated to try and find a use for plastics that weren’t being recycled.

“There's a lot of plastic used every year — billions of tonnes — and only a fraction of it is being recycled,” says Kuehnel.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which many food and drink plastic containers are made from, can be recycled but often isn’t.

“There are a number of reasons for this – one is that recycling in general isn't cheap, so it's easier to burn stuff or throw it on a landfill,” he explains.

Kuehnel says that the process could be more cost effective than recycling plastic because it does not require prior cleaning.

“The beauty of this process is that it's not very picky.,” he says. “It can degrade all sorts of waste.”

“Even if there is food or a bit of grease from a margarine tub, it doesn't stop the reaction, it makes it better.”

The process is quite simple. First, a photocatalyst — a material able to absorb and convert sunlight to generate a chemical reaction — is added to the roughened plastic. It is then placed into a specific alkaline solution which is exposed to sunlight to produce hydrogen.

Although Kuehnel warns that it may be years before the process could be used in industry, the PET-remains not used to produce hydrogen could be recycled to make new plastic.

These are promising findings for the war on waste, and for manufacturers of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

The rubbish-fuelled car of the future, as envisioned by the writers of Back to the Future II, is not far off.

Vhairi Mackintosh is a scientific educator, writer and researcher based in Melbourne who holds a PhD in earth sciences.
  1. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-14/hydrogen-car-explainer-what-are-they-and-when-will-we-drive-them/8946184
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-45028705
Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles