Plastic Bags Transformed Into High-Tech Nanomaterial — Carbon Nanotube Membranes Created From Common Litter Item

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A new process for creating high-tech carbon nanotube membranes out of a very common waste material — plastic bags — has been developed by researchers at the University of Adelaide. The innovative approach to nanotube production could potentially turn the common litter item into a valuable resource — probably a very effective way to reduce the ubiquity of plastic bag litter in the world. Carbon nanotubes are currently utilized in a number of different fields of research, and represent a number of different interesting possibilities with regard to energy storage, advanced sensing systems, filtration systems, and renewable energy.

“Non-biodegradable plastic bags are a serious menace to natural ecosystems and present a problem in terms of disposal,” states Professor Dusan Losic, ARC Future Fellow and Research Professor of Nanotechnology in the University’s School of Chemical Engineering. “Transforming these waste materials through ‘nanotechnological recycling’ provides a potential solution for minimizing environmental pollution at the same time as producing high-added value products.”

University of Adelaide researchers have developed a process for turning waste plastic bags into a high-tech nanomaterial. Image Credit: Michele Hogan
University of Adelaide researchers have developed a process for turning waste plastic bags into a high-tech nanomaterial.
Image Credit: Michele Hogan

The press release from the University of Adelaide has more:

Carbon nanotubes are tiny cylinders of carbon atoms, one nanometer in diameter (1/10,000 the diameter of a human hair). They are the strongest and stiffest materials yet discovered — hundreds of times stronger than steel but six times lighter — and their unique mechanical, electrical, thermal and transport properties present exciting opportunities for research and development. They are already used in a variety of industries including in electronics, sports equipment, long-lasting batteries, sensing devices and wind turbines.

The University of Adelaide’s Nanotech Research Group has ‘grown’ the carbon nanotubes onto nanoporous alumina membranes. They used pieces of grocery plastic bags which were vaporized in a furnace to produce carbon layers that line the pores in the membrane to make the tiny cylinders (the carbon nanotubes). The idea was conceived and carried out by PhD student Tariq Altalhi.

“Initially we used ethanol to produce the carbon nanotubes,” explains Professor Losic. “But my student had the idea that any carbon source should be useable.”

While there is a potentially huge market out there for carbon nanotubes, the relatively high cost of production is still something of a stumbling block. Most of the processes currently in use for production rely on complex processes and equipment — this new process, though, is a good bit simpler, and with the utilization of a common litter item as the carbon source, promises to be a good bit cheaper.

“In our laboratory, we’ve developed a new and simplified method of fabrication with controllable dimensions and shapes, and using a waste product as the carbon source,” Professor Losic summarizes.

Importantly, the new process is also catalyst and solvent free — meaning that poisonous compounds won’t be generated via the use of the plastic bags, as might otherwise be the case.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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