Companies like Terracycle are great at upcycling trash into brand new consumer products, but researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois are taking the concept of turning trash into treasure to new heights with a process that converts throwaway plastic bags into carbon nanotubes. Once converted, the nanotubes can be used to make lithium-ion batteries–a common component of electric cars.
Argonne researcher Vilas Ganpat Pol created the nanotubes by cooking 1-gram pieces of HDPE or LDPE (high or low-density polyethylene) for 2 hours at 700 °C with a cobalt acetate catalyst. As a result, chemical bonds in the plastic break down and carbon nanotubes start to grow on pieces of the cobalt acetate catalyst. It’s a high-intensity process that requires a lot of unrecoverable cobalt acetate, but it’s still better than the standard method of carbon nanotube creation, which requires a vacuum to avoid oxygen interaction. And there’s an advantage to the high amounts of cobalt acetate–cobalt raises current flow in lithium batteries.
Pol’s discovery could add to the growing industry that uses junk materials to create pricey electronics. Another example: The recently released ReCyclone, a device that grind trash into small pieces, can get more gold out of electronic devices than from a gold mine. So maybe cities considering plastic bag bans should think twice–those bags could be the key to high-value car batteries.