Scientists recycle used facemasks into Ethernet cables
Image credit: Dreamstime
Swansea University academics have been able to convert the carbon found in discarded facemasks to create high-quality, single-walled carbon nanotubes (CNT).
Green chemistry has empowered researchers to turn used facemasks into Ethernet cables.
In a study published in Carbon Letters, the Swansea University team outlined the chemical process that allowed them to upcycle materials which would otherwise be thrown away, transforming them into high-quality, single-walled carbon nanotubes (CNT).
These CNTs can then be utilised for a wide variety of purposes, including the production of Ethernet cables with broadband quality, as well as lightweight batteries used in electric cars and drones.
“Single-use facemasks are a real travesty for the recycling system as they create vast amounts of plastic waste - much of it ending up in our oceans," said Professor Alvin Orbaek White, one of the authors of the study, from Swansea University’s Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI).
"During the study, we established that the carbon inside the facemask can be used as a pretty good feedstock to make high-quality materials like CNTs.
“CNTs are highly sought-after because they have preferential physical properties and tend to be much more costly on an industrial scale. So, through this study, we demonstrated that we could make very high-value materials by processing the CNTs from what are, essentially, worthless waste facemasks.”
Since the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to upcycle facemasks has been a global concern.
In April 2020, China reported an average daily production rate of 450 million masks, while Taiwan is estimated to have produced and used 1.3 billion face masks in a period of three months around the same time. Overall, an estimated 52 billion disposable face masks were produced in the entirety of 2020, of which between 1.5 and two billion have likely entered the oceans, the researchers found.
The team studied the energy costs involved in using this process and concluded that the technique was green not only in levels of resource consumption but also in product-value generation as opposed to waste creation.
“Using CNT films in batteries instead of metal films has a lower impact on the environment as the use of carbon offsets the need for mining and extraction activities," said Professor White.
"This is a crucial piece of work as it contributes to not only a circular economy but is also scalable and is viable for industrial processing and has green chemistry at its core.”
The Ethernet cable produced using the CNTs was good quality and adhered to Category 5 transmission speeds while easily exceeding the benchmarks set for broadband internet in most countries, including the UK.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.