Food packaging plastics recycled into electricity cables

Plastics found in food packaging can be recycled to create new materials for electricity cables, claim researchers at Swansea University.

electricity cables
Conversion of plastics to nanotube material (Credit: Dr Alvin Orbaek White)

The research, published in the Journal of Carbon Research is said to focus on chemical recycling which uses the constituent elements of the plastic to make new materials.

Plastics are made of carbon, hydrogen and sometimes oxygen, and can be broken down into these elements and bonded in different arrangements to make materials such as carbon nanotubes.

Dr Alvin Orbaek White, a Sêr Cymru II Fellow at the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI) at Swansea University said: “Carbon nanotubes are tiny molecules with incredible physical properties. The structure of a carbon nanotube looks like a piece of chicken wire wrapped into a cylinder and when carbon is arranged like this it can conduct both heat and electricity. These two different forms of energy are each very important to control and use in the right quantities, depending on your needs.

“Nanotubes can be used to make a huge range of things, such as conductive films for touchscreen displays, flexible electronics fabrics that create energy, antennas for 5G networks, while NASA has used them to prevent electric shocks on the Juno spacecraft.”

During the study, the research team tested plastics, in particular black plastics, which are commonly used as food packaging but can’t be easily recycled.  They removed the carbon and then constructed nanotube molecules from the bottom up using the carbon atoms, then used the nanotubes to transmit electricity to a light bulb in a small demonstrator model.

Now the research team plan to make high purity carbon electrical cables using waste plastic materials and to improve the nanotube material’s electrical performance and increase the output, so they are ready for large-scale deployment in the next three years.

Dr Orbaek White said: “The research is significant as carbon nanotubes can be used to solve the problem of electricity cables overheating and failing, which is responsible for about eight per cent of electricity lost in transmission and distribution globally.”

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