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Plastic waste may be headed for the microwave

Posted October 18, 2019

Could microwaves be part of the answer to our planet’s plastic problems?

A James Cook University scientist is building microwave heating technology to decompose plastic waste into by-products helpful to the environment.

Plastic pollution. Image credit: Angela Companone via Unsplash (Free Unsplash licence).

Plastic pollution. Image credit: Angela Companone via Unsplash (Free Unsplash licence).

The head of Electrical Engineering at JCU’s Professor Mohan Jacob says the average person uses 130 kg of plastic a year – or ten tons during their lifetime.

“Perhaps contrary to popular opinion, plastic is an indispensable material in modern life. It is cheap, versatile, lightweight, and has many benefits like maintaining food quality and safety and preventing waste,” he said.

But Professor Jacob said pollution from discarded plastic has a significant negative impact on our environment and is particularly harmful to marine and wildlife health.

“Discarded plastics endanger our marine wildlife, and have begun to enter the food chain. There is an urgent need for developing technologies to recover plastic waste,” he said.

Professor Jacob said he and his collaborator, JCU Adjunct Associate Professor of Engineering Graham Brodie, are working on customizing microwave technology to do this.

Professor Jacob said plastic waste would be converted into biochar – charcoal that can be used as a soil conditioner.

The microwave energy is used in the absence of oxygen to controllably heat materials beyond 600 degrees Celsius within a custom-made chamber.

Professor Jacob said his group is currently working on stage one of the project.

“We are developing a processing chamber, which could process many kinds of plastic materials, up to 5 kilograms of waste. It will be a prototype system for the development of biochars from different types of plastics under various conditions.”

He said stage two will optimize the energy efficiency of the system and maximize the yield of by-products. Stage three will build a fully customized and easy to operate a waste processing system, which could be installed at medium scale industries.

Source: James Cook University

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