science -- September 26, 2013 at 9:55 AM ET
Your plastic grocery bags can now be recycled into nanotechnology
That grocery-store plastic bag you just threw away might be the future of nanotechnology. Scientists at the University of Adelaide have developed a way to turn plastic bags into carbon nanotube membranes. These membranes are sophisticated and costly, with the potential to be used for energy storage and biomedical innovations.
Plastic bags represent a huge threat to the environment. They aren't biodegradable, Americans use over 100 billion (yes, that's billion with a b) of them, and only 1% are recycled. Thousands of marine animals and birds die of plastic pollution. And the environmental benefits to this "upcycling" (a play on recycling that means converting a waste product into something more valuable) these plastic bags could be important, at least according to Professor Dusan Losic, who led the team. "Transforming these waste materials through 'nanotechnological recycling' provides a potential solution for minimizing environmental pollution at the same time as producing high-added value products."
Similar research has been done before, Vilas Ganpat Pol at the Argonne National Laboratory converted plastic bags into nanotubes suitable for use in lithium-ion batteries. But Professor Dusan Losic's method has broader applications, and uses a new method. Here's the science: Dusan vaporized the plastic bags in a high-heat furnace, providing nanoporous alumina membranes with carbon pores that allowed the carbon nanotubes to grow.
The process is extremely complex, but shows that carbon-based "non-degradable wastematerial [such] as commercial plastic bags can be directly used to produce such sophisticated nanodevices as CNTs membranes." And in layman's terms, that could be a very good thing.