UL breakthrough turns scourge of plastic waste into useful raw materials

8 Feb 2019688 Views

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Dr Walter Stanley, UL. Image: IComp

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Innovative UL project could help end the scourge of plastic pollution and turn waste into profit.

Researchers at University of Limerick (UL) have developed a breakthrough solution that turns waste plastic bottles into composites for many uses, including car parts.

The project by researchers at the Irish Composites Centre (IComp) has already won the backing of Enterprise Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency, and it is currently seeking a range of industry and commercial partnerships to take it to the next level.

‘Ireland is currently the biggest producer of plastic waste in the European Union’
– DR WALTER STANLEY

IComp was established in 2010 under the Enterprise Ireland-IDA Technology Centres initiative. Hosted by UL, IComp is a partnership between the university and University College Dublin, Athlone Institute of Technology and NUI Galway.

Waste not water bottles

Sea borne plastic bottles on a part of Inch Strand in Kerry, November 2018.

Seaborne plastic bottles on Inch Strand in Kerry, November 2018. Image: IComp

IComp’s work involves commercialising the recycling of the plastic material polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – commonly used for water and soft-drink bottles, and other single-use products – through the development of a technology that allows these plastics to be recycled into a high-tensile fibre that can then be woven into a fabric. This fabric has the potential to be used in the production of high-performance recyclable composite parts for the automobile and agricultural vehicle industries, for example.

In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards the use of self-reinforced polymer composites (SRPs) – whereby the fibre and the matrix are the same material – for consumer goods such as high-quality luggage, sports and sailing equipment, and car parts. SRPs can make such high-performance parts without the weight of traditional materials such as steel or even aluminium.

The newly developed IComp technology – called ‘SerPET’ – will allow SRPs to be manufactured from used plastic bottles for valuable applications, reducing the volumes that go into landfill and into our oceans.

“Ireland is currently the biggest producer of plastic waste in the European Union, with an average of 61kg produced each year per person,” explained Dr Walter Stanley from IComp.

“A large proportion of this plastic is made up of single-use plastic bottles, which, apart from polluting the landscape and seascape visually, also degrade over time and leach in the environment, creating many downstream problems for nature, animals and humans.

“The technology developed by IComp aims at recycling plastic bottles (mainly PET) into a high-tensile fibre, which can then be used in a wide variety of value-added products. If successfully commercialised, this project would turn plastic bottles into a valuable raw material and stimulate greater recycling. It would lead to incentives for better plastic collection and separation, and therefore less littering, general pollution and incineration.

“The self-reinforced composites which IComp are currently developing are more energy-efficient to process and will have a lower cost than other products on the market whilst also being significantly greener, with a high level of rigidity, strength and temperature performance for many applications including car parts, which will themselves be recyclable when the cars are scrapped.”

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com