by Robert Waltz
Not for the faint of art.
|It is not likely that every problem caused by technology has a technological solution. But many do. Here's an example.
Plastic trash can now be recycled into ultra-strong graphene
Plastic decomposition is sped up by the flash Joule heating method
Packaging from the grocery store, lint from our clothing, plastic shopping bags – plastics and microplastics are everywhere, and they’re not going anywhere.
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
I'm sure this is not what McGuire meant in The Graduate, but yes, indeed there was a great future in plastics. A very, very long one indeed.
In order to speed up this decomposition process, scientists from Rice University are transforming these discarded plastics into non-toxic, naturally occurring materials. They're doing this by using a newly developed technique called “flash Joule heating,” to rapidly heat plastic materials to very high temperatures .
"But where's the energy coming from to-" "Shut up."
Currently, there are a few plastic recycling techniques that are widely used, with differing results.
Now, I've heard -- without a lot of confirmation -- that many plastics don't get recycled at all, even if they're labeled with recycle symbols, sorted carefully into categories, left in a recycling container instead of the trash can (rubbish bin for my Brit friends), and picked up by a green truck with a great big RECYCLE logo on it. This is, I've heard, because plastics are generally difficult to recycle. Aluminum and other metals? Easy; melt it down and you get... aluminum or whatever. Glass? Also easy. Melt it down and you get glass. Melt plastic down and those handy long-chain hydrocarbons break apart and you get methane, carbon dioxide, and all sorts of fun-to-pronounce chemicals.
Even more shockingly, each plastic bag is used for, on average, less than one hour.
Depends on what you mean by "use." and what you mean by "bag." Why, I have plastic bags in my freezer that have been in use since 1996. I suppose one of these days I should remove the 25-year-old meat, but I can't be arsed.
Okay, that's hyperbole. Still, it might be time to go through the freezer.
In contrast, the “flash Joule heating” method turns plastic into graphene, which is highly recyclable and very stable. Graphene itself is incredibly strong and stretchy – 200 times stronger than steel. Graphene is a single layer form of graphite, a naturally occurring carbon-based mineral that is commonly found as pencil lead.
What the hell, MassiveSci? I expect better than this from you. Graphite (as well as graphene) is carbon-based in the same sense that the clear liquid coming out of your faucet is "water-based." That is, it's pure carbon. Like diamond, only generally not mined by 8-year-old slaves.
By directly generating graphene from plastic waste, it is possible to reduce its production cost.
Again, graphene is carbon. Plastics are based on long-chain hydrocarbons. I don't see very much in the article about what happens to all the other little atoms. "Some hydrogen and hydrocarbons." Okay, then what?
Generating graphene directly from plastic could disrupt the graphite supply chain, thereby decreasing mining activity and reducing pollution caused by mining.
In the meantime, you can help fight plastic waste by making one small but significant change in your life: bring your own reusable fabric bag to the store with you.
You know. I'm old enough to remember that groceries used to be packed in brown paper bags exclusively. Paper, of course, is both fairly easy to recycle or, if you can't be arsed to recycle it, biodegradable. Then the grocery stores started stocking those flimsy plastic bags that (con) couldn't carry much more than three tomatoes without breaking but (pro) had handles. Plastic bags were better for the stores because they were cheaper and lighter, and you could store like 1000 of them where you could only store like 100 paper bags (note: those numbers are wild-ass guesses, but the idea is valid). There was a transition period you might recall when shoppers were offered a choice. "Paper or plastic?" became even more ubiquitous for a few years than "Credit or debit?" and "You want fries with that?"
Finally they trained consumers to not want paper bags anymore, and they quit asking, instead just dumping the groceries into plastic bags. This end of the "Paper or plastic?" era somehow coincided with the first scaremongering about OMG MICROPASTICS WTF NONBIODEGRADABLE IT'S EVERYWHERE. Hell, some areas flat-out banned plastic bags, and didn't go back to paper. And bringing my own bags to the grocery store is Not Going To Happen. (I don't go to the store anymore anyway, instead opting for delivery -- which usually comes in plastic bags. I don't give a shit.)
I'm not saying there isn't a problem with microplastics. I'm saying, like, why the fearmongering? Unless it's a massive campaign financed by pissed-off paper bag manufacturers, or the makers of reusable cloth grocery bags. Yeah... that's my working theory. It's like how I've always thought that PETA is actually run by the soybean industry in an effort to sell more tofu.
Anyway. Point is, this is pretty clever technology and I hope it actually becomes a thing.