Laser blasts could solve the world’s plastic problem

Researchers have developed a way to blast molecules in plastics and other materials with a laser to break them down into their smallest parts for future reuse.

The method involves placing these materials on two-dimensional materials called transition metal dichalcogenides and then illuminating them.

The discovery has the potential to improve the way we dispose of plastics that are nearly impossible to break down with current technologies.

“By harnessing these unique reactions, we can explore new avenues to transform environmental pollutants into valuable, reusable chemicals, contributing to the development of a more sustainable and circular economy,” says Yuebing Zheng, a professor in the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and one of the project leaders.

“This discovery has important implications for addressing environmental challenges and advancing the field of green chemistry.”

Plastic pollution has become a global environmental crisis, with millions of tons of plastic waste piling up in landfills and oceans every year. Conventional methods of plastic degradation are often energy-intensive, environmentally harmful and inefficient. Researchers plan to use this new discovery to develop efficient plastic recycling technologies to reduce pollution.

The researchers used low-power light to break the chemical bonds in plastics and create new chemical bonds that turned the materials into luminescent carbon dots. Carbon-based nanomaterials are in high demand due to their multiple capabilities, and these dots could potentially be used as memory storage devices in next-generation computing devices.

“It’s exciting to take plastic that on its own would never break down and transform it into something useful for many different industries,” says Jingang Li, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, who began the research at UT Austin.

The specific reaction is called CH activation, in which the carbon-hydrogen bonds of an organic molecule are selectively broken and transformed into a new chemical bond. In this research, two-dimensional materials catalyzed this reaction that led to hydrogen molecules being transformed into a gas. That opened the way for carbon molecules to bond together to form the information-storing dots.

Further research and development is needed to optimize the light-activated CH4 activation process and scale it up for industrial applications. However, this study represents a significant step forward in the search for sustainable solutions for plastic waste management.

The light-driven CH activation process demonstrated in this study can be applied to many long-chain organic compounds, including polyethylene and surfactants commonly used in nanomaterial systems.

The study appears in Nature Communications.

Other co-authors are from UT Austin, Tohoku University in Japan, the University of California at Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Baylor University and Penn State.

The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the Hirose Foundation, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China funded the work.

Source: University of Texas at Austin