Automotive waste plastic cleverly changes graphene

The diagram shows the process of scrap car plastic being shredded in landfills but recycled and upgraded to graphene, a high-value nanomaterial that is currently used by Ford Motor Company as a polymer reinforcement for industrial use. Image from Ford Motor Company and Rice University

A study could turn recycled automotive waste plastics into graphene and use them to make new automotive parts through an energy-efficient technology. The findings provide a potential solution to this landfill-intensive waste generated by the 1.4 billion passenger cars in use worldwide. The study was recently published in Communications-Engineering.

The waste plastic produced by end-of-life cars accounts for 1 trillion kilograms of total plastic waste that needs to be landfilled, with an average of 200-350 kilograms of plastic per vehicle. For a variety of reasons, such materials are difficult to reuse. For example, many of these materials are engineered plastics that cannot be recycled, and traditional recycling methods require the separation of different types of plastics, which is expensive to recycle.

Recent studies have shown that it is feasible to turn waste plastics into graphene, a valuable material worth $60,000 to $200,000 per ton, with high conductivity and high thermal stability, chemical stability and other practical properties. This process may be a viable means of recycling automotive plastics into graphene. Graphene is also sometimes used as an additive to some automotive plastics to improve strength and noise absorption.

James Tour and colleagues at Rice University in Texas demonstrated the conversion of used car plastic into high-quality graphene using an energy-saving technology called Joule Thermal Flash. The technology uses an electric current to heat the carbon, turning it into graphene, using only low-cost facilities and without the need to separate or sort the plastics, as well as solvents, furnaces or water.

The authors shredded the bumpers, gaskets, carpets, mats, seats, and door frame strips of the Ford F-150 pickup truck together, demonstrating the general steps of the process. They also enhanced the new automotive plastic with recycled graphene and found that its performance was comparable to that of Ford’s newly produced graphene-containing plastic composites.

Inside the 2022 F-150, graphene is used as a reinforcing agent in industry due to its excellent strength, stability and lightness. Image from Ford Motor Company

Author Kevin Wyss holds a bottle of graphene made from waste plastic and a piece of graphene-reinforced polymer for Ford Motor Company experiments. Image from Rice University

Author Kevin Wyss holds scrap car scrap plastics that are recycled and upgraded to graphene. These end-of-life plastics come from landfills and have not been cleaned or purified in any way before use. Image from Rice University

The authors then re-heated the graphene/plastic composite material recovered from waste using Joule thermal flashing technology, producing more graphene.

In addition, the authors also found that Joule thermal flashing technology is lower in terms of energy demand, global warming effects, and water consumption than traditional graphene production methods.

The authors believe that the study may become a step forward towards a more environmentally friendly way of producing graphene. (Source: China Science Daily Feng Weiwei)

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