Year/Course: 2019-2020, Lent 2020

Inventors: Taylor Uekert & Dr Christian Pichler, Chemistry
Mentor: Dr. Mark Priest

The Reisner lab in Chemistry works on a range of patented photoreforming processes, which use photocatalysts and sunlight to simultaneously break down plastic waste or biomatter and generate hydrogen.

In this project, a non-toxic, carbon-based and easily-available photocatalyst is used to break down plastics into a mixture of small organic molecules and hydrogen gas. So far the process works best on polar plastics, which include polyethylene terephthalate (like water bottles) and some polyurethanes. It also works on food-contaminated plastics, which many existing processes do not.

The plastic waste needs to be ground into small pieces, mixed with water and the catalyst, and then exposed to sunlight for several weeks. Typically half of the plastic will be reformed after two weeks.

There are several aspects of the process that may have commercial value. The first is its ability to chemically break down plastic waste – however, the inventors recognise that the process is a slow one and so would need to be used carefully in a recycling pathway. The second is the hydrogen gas which it produces, and the third is the mixture of organic molecules that are made during the plastic breakdown process.

The challenge for the i-Team is to look at the three possible areas of value and assess which aspects of the process would have the greatest appeal for an industrial partner. For example, how might the output organic molecules be used, and what processing would be needed (e.g. to separate them out) before they could have a practical application.