Researchers recycle plastic bags into carbon nanotubes

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Our world is filled with carbon, which is lucky for manufacturers of emerging carbon materials like graphene and carbon nanotubes. It turns out that with the right process, you can use a particularly annoying and destructive source of carbon, plastic bags, to make carbon nanotubes.

University of Adelaide researchers plan to publish a paper in Carbon that details how they vaporized plastic grocery bags to make the carbon nanotubes. Like just about everything, plastic contains carbon, which was freed when the bags were vaporized in a furnace. The researchers also placed a sheet of material in the furnace. The carbon grabs ahold of the material and builds itself into the long, one-atom-thick cylinders that make up carbon nanotubes.

The researchers first made nanotubes out of ethanol before realizing they could use other sources of carbon. Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory also successfully used plastic bags to make nanotubes back in 2009, but their method required a large amount of a catalyst to be added to the furnace. The new method does not require a catalyst and no poisonous materials are generated.

“In our laboratory, we’ve developed a new and simplified method of fabrication with controllable dimensions and shapes, and using a waste product as the carbon source,” nanotechnology professor Dusan Losic said in a release.

It’s still a relatively slow process to create carbon nanotubes. Manufacturing them in large batches is connected to their cost and, as a result, success in the marketplace. While nanotubes have found some success in electronics and sporting equipment, and could find further success in the medical and energy fields, manufacturing still needs to get easier. Making them out of recycled plastic bags would be a great way to marry conservation with new technology.

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