Making hydrogen from waste plastic could pay for itself

Rice University researchers have found a way to harvest hydrogen from plastic waste using a low-emissions method that could more than pay for itself.

The researchers exposed plastic waste samples to rapid flash Joule heating for about four seconds, bringing their temperature up to 3,100 degrees Kelvin. The process vaporises the hydrogen present in plastics, leaving behind graphene, an extremely light, durable material made up of a single layer of carbon atoms.

Kevin Wyss, a Rice doctoral alumnus and lead author on a study published in Advanced Materials, said, “We converted waste plastics – including mixed waste plastics that don’t have to be sorted by type or washed – into high-yield hydrogen gas and high-value graphene. If the produced graphene is sold at only 5% of current market value … clean hydrogen could be produced for free.”

By comparison, ‘green’ hydrogen, produced using renewable energy sources to split water into its two component elements, costs roughly $5 for just over two pounds. Though cheaper, most of the nearly 100m tonnes of hydrogen used globally in 2022 was derived from fossil fuels, its production generating roughly 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of hydrogen.

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