Researchers from the University of California Riverside developed a new way to recycle plastic waste into a nanomaterial that is useful for energy storage, reducing plastic pollution and pushing the transition to 100% clean energy.

A scanning electron microscope image of a porous carbon nanomaterial useful for energy storage made from recycled PET soda bottles. Source: Mihri Ozkan and Cengiz Ozkan/UC RiversideA scanning electron microscope image of a porous carbon nanomaterial useful for energy storage made from recycled PET soda bottles. Source: Mihri Ozkan and Cengiz Ozkan/UC Riverside

The new process is a sustainable and straightforward process for upcycling polyethylene terephthalate plastic (PET) waste.

To create the new nanomaterial, PET pieces are dissolved in a solvent and electrospinning is used to fabricate microscopic fibers. The plastic threads are then carbonized in a furnace and mixed with a binder and conductive agent. The material is then dried and assembled into an electric double layer supercapacitor with a coin cell type format.

After testing, the team found that the supercapacitor contained the same characteristics as a double layer capacitor formed by an arrangement of separated ionic/electronic charges and redox reaction pseudo-capacitance that occurs when ions are electrochemically absorbed from the surface of materials.

The new supercapacitor does not store as much energy as lithium-ion batteries. But it does charge faster, making it appropriate for many applications.

By doping the electrospun fibers prior to carbonization with various chemicals and minerals, the team plans to fine-tune the final material with improved electrical properties.

The process is scalable and marketable. It represents major progress toward keeping PET waste out of landfills.

A paper on this technology was published in Energy Storage.