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New energies 16/11/2020

Recycling Plastic To Generate Clean Hydrogen

We used to think about recycling plastic as turning used bottles into new bottles. 

But now chemists have developed an innovative new way to turn supermarket plastic packaging into a clean source of hydrogen, in a process that requires a fraction of the time and cost.

In collaboration with colleagues at universities and institutions in the UK, China and Saudi Arabia, researchers in the Edwards/Xiao group at Oxford’s Department of Chemistry achieved the breakthrough thanks to tiny particles of iron and microwaves.

Here’s more about how it works:


  • This innovative process, originally described in Nature Catalysis, involved breaking down the plastic into small pieces with a kitchen blender and mixing it with a catalyst of iron oxide and aluminium oxide.
  • The aluminum oxide and iron oxide catalysts were able to heat while keeping the plastics cool, therefore preventing unwanted side reactions and making the process more efficient.
  • The pulverization of plastic samples lasts 30 to 90 seconds and yields a recovery rate of 97% of the hydrogen gas in the plastic, along with carbonaceous residue, much of which were identified as carbon nanotubes.
  • These resulting carbon nanotubes were of sufficient quantity to be used in other applications, such as energy storage, automotive parts, water filters, and electromagnetic shields.


To the next level:

For now, the initial process was executed on a small scale, but researchers believe that it might one day allow post-consumer plastics to be converted at scale to produce clean hydrogen fuel — helping to both to reduce plastic pollution and create a steady supply of clean energy.

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