Student’s Corner

     How can we use solar power to convert waste into sustainable energy? Recently, researchers in Cambridge have developed a process in which energy from the sun can be harnessed and utilized to turn both plastics and greenhouse gases into chemical products which can be used as renewable fuel sources: syngas and glycolic acid. Waste–especially plastic waste–has always been a major problem plaguing society, contributing not only to immediate ecosystem health but also accelerating damages done by pollution and climate change. Each year, about 300 million metric tons (or over 660 billion pounds) of waste composed of plastic are generated (Euronews). This is nearly equivalent to the weight of the population of the human race. Over 90% of all this waste ends up in landfills or oceans (contributing to our infamous microplastics problem) and only a small fraction actually gets recycled. 

 

     The main obstacle with conventional chemical recycling (transforming plastics into usable fuel sources for energy) is that the process is extremely energy intensive (meaning that it requires very high temperatures to work), making it very inefficient and expensive. However, with the use of solar power instead of other sources of electricity, the process of plastic-fuel conversion is made both more efficient and more cost-effective. As far as the reactor itself, it turns carbon dioxide (a pervasive greenhouse gas) into synthetic gas (or syngas), which is a widely important ingredient in green fuels used across numerous industries. This product–syngas–is a mix of hydrogen and carbon monoxide which can be used to create other sources of power and electricity in the making of diesel or methanol (other liquid fuels). Similarly, converting plastic waste into glycolic acid is valuable for use in the cosmetics industry–this product is known for its benefits in skincare from exfoliation and increasing collagen to hydration and reducing wrinkles and more. 

 

The major objective in the transition to clean, renewable fuel sources is to decrease the use of fossil fuels and generate a circular economy in the energy sector (placing more emphasis on reducing and reusing rather than recycling since in reality, most recycled waste ends up in landfills anyway). Plastics and greenhouse gases are, after all, the greatest sources of pollution on the planet–hence, being able to turn these sources of waste into useful products (while maintaining both an energy and cost efficient conversion process) means entering the green marketplace with sustainable products on the path to a zero-waste energy economy. 

Photo by Anders J on Unsplash

Written by Carole Wilay (’25)