Researchers have developed a new system to convert plastic waste and greenhouse gasses into sustainable fuels and renewable products. A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge developed a system – an integrated reactor – that can convert two waste streams into two chemical products at the same time, eventually creating the first solar-powered reactor to do so. Using just energy from the sun, the reactor system converts the harnessed carbon dioxide and plastics into a valuable range of multi-industry products.

"Generally, CO2 conversion requires a lot of energy, but with our system, basically you just shine a light at it, and it starts converting harmful products into something useful and sustainable," said first co-author, Dr. Motiar Rahaman. "Prior to this system, we didn't have anything that could make high-value products selectively and efficiently."

The CO2 was converted into syngas, which is a key building block for natural gas and liquid renewable fuels; while the plastic was converted into glycolic acid, which is used in a variety of skin care products. By collecting harmful waste and converting it into a renewable energy source or product, the age of technology is progressing into a more sustainable era.

"Converting waste into something useful using solar energy is a major goal of our research. Plastic pollution is a huge problem worldwide, and often, many of the plastics we throw into recycling bins are incinerated or end up in landfill," stated the paper’s Senior Author, Professor Erwin Reisner from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry.

The integrated reactor uses a perovskite light absorber base and has two separate compartments – one for solids and the other for gas. Perovskite is a silicon alternative for next generation solar cells. The researchers also designed and developed different, interchangeable catalysts that can develop different end products, depending on the initial beginning intention.

"What's so special about this system is the versatility and tunability -- we're making fairly simple carbon-based molecules right now, but in future, we could be able to tune the system to make far more complex products, just by changing the catalyst," said co-first author Subhajit Bhattacharjee.