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Transforming plastic waste into useful aerogels

By Paul Grad |

Plastic-bottle waste is toxic and non-biodegradable, and has become a major environmental issue. It often ends up in the oceans, affecting marine life, or in landfills, contaminating groundwater and affecting land use. Now a team led by professors Nhan Phan-Thien and Hai Minh Duong, from the National University of Singapore (Singapore; www.nus.edu.sg), has developed recycled polyethylene tetraphthalate (rPET) silica aerogels using rPET fibers obtained from plastic bottle waste via sol-gel and ambient-pressure drying methods.

The team prepared the rPET aerogels through a direct gelation of silica onto PET. rPET fibers are treated with dichloromethane to partially dissolve the fibers. The fibers were then dipped and allowed to swell in a mixture of tetraethoxysilane (TEOS) and ethanol, with the pH controlled to 2.5 using HCl to promote hydrolysis. After acid hydrolysis, the pH was controlled to 7 with an ammonium hydroxide solution to promote condensation.

New aerogel materials containing recycled plastics have properties such as lightness, softness and flexibilityNew aerogel materials containing recycled plastics have properties such as lightness, softness and flexibilithhhvfhjyutkjj, making them suitable for many industrial applications, such as in thermal insulation, filtering and sound insulation. They can undergo various surface treatments to customize them for different applications.

For example, when incorporated with methyl groups, PET aerogels can absorb large amounts of oil very quickly, making them very suitable for oil-spill cleaning. When coated with fire retardants, the aerogels show superior thermal resistance and stability, and can withstand temperatures up to 620°C.

When coated with an amine group, the PET aerogel can quickly absorb CO2. To demonstrate this application, the team embedded a thin layer of PET aerogel into a fine particle that can effectively absorb both dust particles and CO2.

The developed rPET silica aerogels exhibit super-hydrophobicity with an average water-contact angle of 149.9 deg.

The team has filed a patent for its PET aerogel technology, and is seeking a business partner to commercialize the technology.

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