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A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge has developed a revolutionary solar-powered system that can simultaneously convert plastic waste and greenhouse gases into sustainable liquid fuels.

This is the first time such a process has been achieved in a single reactor using only solar energy.

The reactor uses a light absorber based on perovskite, an alternative to silicon for next-generation solar cells, and different catalysts to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into syngas, a key building block for sustainable liquid fuels, and plastic bottles into glycolic acid, which is widely used in the cosmetics industry.


“Converting waste into something useful using solar energy is a major goal of our research. Plastic pollution is a huge problem worldwide, and often, many of the plastics we throw into recycling bins are incinerated or end up in landfill.”

— Lead Author, Professor Erwin Reisner, Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry

The results of the study were recently published in the journal Nature Synthesis and the project is also being supported by the European Union, the European Research Council, the Cambridge Trust, Hermann and Marianne Straniak Stiftung, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The researchers hope that their system could be used to develop an entirely solar-powered recycling plant in the future. Reisner added, “Developing a circular economy, where we make useful things from waste instead of throwing it into landfill, is vital if we’re going to meaningfully address the climate crisis and protect the natural world. And powering these solutions using the Sun means that we’re doing it cleanly and sustainably.”

The cool thing about this breakthrough is it converts two waste streams (Plastic and CO2) into two chemical products at the same time.

Converting waste products into something useful using only solar energy is a big win for the environment because the plastic problem is a major issue with most of the “recycled plastic” being dumped in a land fill or incinerated. And of course, carbon is a major contributor to human-caused climate change.

The team is now working on further developing the reactor to produce more complex molecules. Reisner recently received new funding from the European Research Council to help develop the reactor. The researchers say that similar techniques could someday be used to develop an entirely solar-powered recycling plant.

“Developing a circular economy, where we make useful things from waste instead of throwing it into landfill, is vital if we’re going to meaningfully address the climate crisis and protect the natural world,” said Reisner. “And powering these solutions using the Sun means that we’re doing it cleanly and sustainably.”

Read more > University of Cambridge article

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